cognición social - social cognition

Social cognition: structure and assessmentof a key construct

In the field of neuropsychology and psychology, an understanding of social cognition brings to mind concepts such as empathy, recognition of emotional facial expressions, theory of mind or mentalization; however, it is not always clear under which idea or model we should relate these constructs and base our assessment and treatment of individuals with social cognition deficits.

Although current research in social cognition lacks holistic and detailed theoretical models [1], there is a consensus that it is a system of information processing in which multiple, more basic functions enable social behavior [1].

What are these basic functions involved in social cognition and how do they relate to each other to lead tosocial behavior?

Based on a recent review by Sánchez-Cubillo, Tirapu-Ustárroz and Adrover-Roig [1] and Ochsner’ssocial-emotional processing stream[2], this post addresses the definition, structure and several measures developed to assess social cognition, a key construct.

Conceptual overview of social cognition

Social cognition is understood as the ability to construct representations of the relationships between oneself and others and to use those representations flexibly to guide social behavior [1].

Social cognition is a complex process that draws upon neural mechanisms for perceiving, recognizing, and evaluating stimuli, which are then used to construct representations of the social environment [1].

Components and levels ofcomplexity of social cognition: Ochsner’s model

Ochsner’s social-emotional processing stream (2008) is a general model of social cognition that includes most of the cognitive and affective processes studied in isolation by basic research on social cognition [1,2].

This model identifies that in the processing of information involved in social cognition, there are five key constituents that are related to each other in a hierarchical manner and in which different processes are involved:

1. Acquisition of social-affective values and responses

Through conditioning (a form of associative learning), we initially assign affective values to social stimuli and to possible responses to them.

In other words,we implicitly learn to associate each social stimulus to a value (the stimulus is something more or less positive, negative or neutral) and the stimulus-value associations will influence the subjective way in which each individual interprets the world, molding their desires, preferences, attitudes, etc.

2. Recognition of and response to social-affective stimuli

Subsequently, we perceive and recognize social-affective stimuli that serve as cues and whose recognition is very relevant to our adaptation to social environments.

Social cues that we detect and encode at this level are:

  • Biological motion: only produced by living organisms with joints.
  • Recognition of emotional facial expression: recognition of facial expressions of happiness, fear, or more complex emotions such as distraction and admiration.
  • Eye-gaze: enables us to know what another person is paying attention to.
  • Prosody: tone of voice in speech.

By observing our social environment, we detect those social cues that we interpret as positive, negative or neutral stimuli, and whose recognition has the ultimatepurposeof understanding the intentions of others and attributing mental states to them.

3. Embodied simulation or low-level mental state inference

Low-level mental state inferencesrefer to processes of understanding (mental states and intentions of others) that do not involve reasoning but rather more basic and direct mechanisms such as embodied simulation processes, which involve the activation of mirror neurons.

As we know, mirrow neurons are neurons that fire when others perform an action as well as when we perform the same action. This mechanism has been hypothesized to be the neural substrate underlying empathy (specifically, affective empathy, one of its two major components) and imitation (especially social mirroring).

Empathy is the ability to directly feel other people’s emotions just by looking at them. Empathy is important because it helps us understand other people’s mental states, how others are feeling and their intentions. This is done in an automatic manner that does not involve reasoning processes which require more time.

4. High-level mental state/traitinference: theory of mind or cognitive empathy

High-level mental state inferences refer to the symbolic understanding of what we observe, as we take into account both context and semantic and episodic information, in order to be able to explain the information we process, which allows us to make adaptive responses to ambiguous social stimuli (which require a more complex, symbolic processing).

At this level, reasoning does intervene and theory of mind processes activate (theory of mind is also known as ‘mentalizing’or cognitive empathy, which refers to the ability to attribute mental states to others in order toexplain and predict behavior).

5. Context-sensitive regulation

According to this construct, there are three ways of regulating social behavior:

1.     Description-based regulation:

The first regulatory ability involves the use of verbal knowledge to reinterpret or reappraise the meaning of a perceived social-affective stimulus, according to a specific situation.

By explicitly knowing someone’s mental state, we can reinterpret their behavior as a result of a particular situation and act accordingly in a more adaptive manner. For example, if we know that a co-worker is angry because he/she just had a fight with their partner, we can reinterprettheir negative response towards us not as a personal problem with us, but as a result offeeling displeased due to the problem with their partner.

2. Outcome-based regulation:

This form of regulation depends on the re-learningor re-mapping of relationships between stimuli or actions and affective outcomes (whether the outcomes of past behaviors were more or less positive or negative). Therefore, it is based on reassigning the value of the stimulus by recalling the outcomes from previous experiences.

3. Choice-based regulation:

The last regulatory ability works as a combination of the abovetwo, and involves weighing the relative values of choice options to balance short-term and long-term gains.

In sum, according to Ochsner’ssocial-emotional processing stream, at the most basic levels of social information processing, we learn the value of social stimuli and subsequently perceive and interpretthese stimuli (for example, recognizing in others’ facial expressions of emotions that we associate with certain values). At intermediate levels, embodied simulation processes are facilitated by mirror neuron mechanisms (such as affective empathy and imitation). Finally, symbolic inference processes (theory of mind) and self-regulation are involved at more complex levels of social information processing.

Social cognition tests

Some useful tests to assess common social cognition functions are [1]:

  • The Eyes Test (Baron-Cohen):this test assesses the ability to decode expressed feelings and thoughts from pictures of eyes.
  • The Maxi Task (first-order false belief task):this task assesses children’s comprehension of another person’s false belief.
  • The Ice-Cream Truck Story (second-order false belief task): assesses second-order theory of mind abilities by measuring children’s ability to reason about second-order beliefs.
  • Strange Stories (Happé):include tasks on irony, lie, and white lie.
  • Faux Pas Stories: assess the ability to understand awkward social situations.
  • The Prisoner’s Dilemma and the Trolley Dilemma: assess empathy and moral judgment.

NeuronUP has included several activities for improving social cognition, click here to see them.


  1. Sánchez-Cubillo I, Tirapu-Ustárroz J y Adrover-Roig D (2012). Neuropsicología de la cognición social y la autoconciencia. En Tirapu-Ustárroz J, Ríos-Lago M, García Molina A y Ardila A (Eds.), Neuropsicología del córtex prefrontal y las funciones ejecutivas (pp. 353-390). Barcelona:Viguera.
  2. Ochsner, K. (2008) The social-emotionalprocessingstream: fivecoreconstructs and theirtranslationalpotentialforschizophrenia and beyond. BiolPsychiatry, 64: 48-61.


Lidia García Pérez

Lidia García Pérez

Licenciada en Psicología (Universidad Complutense de Madrid),Máster en Evaluación y Rehabilitación Neuropsicológicas (Universidad Camilo José Cela) y Máster en Neurociencia (Universidad Autónoma de Madrid).
Lidia García Pérez

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