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The Development of Social Cognition

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The Development of Social Cognition

We assume you were able to learn how infants and young kids develop an understanding of the physical world to this point. Now we will explore how children comprehend the social world.

The development of social cognition

We can understand the development of social cognition if we first break down and comprehend what the term social cognition means. Our daily lives include processing information from external and internal means to predict situations and behaviours. Social interaction is one of the most important elements we depend on as humans, where we respond after interpreting others’ behaviours. Social cognition refers to when we put ourselves in the place of others, understanding and predicting our own and their behaviour.

Social cognition refers to processing information from our environment and memory to predict our actions and of others.

The Development of Social Cognition Two people can share different perspectives on a similar event StudySmarterTwo people can share different perspectives on a similar event, Flaticon

The development of social cognition will be explained in several ways, through the levels of perspective-taking by Selman, the role of mirror neurons in social cognition, the theory of mind (a follow-up article) and the Sally-Anne test.

Selman’s levels of perspective-taking

According to Selman (1976, 1980), looking at things from other people’s perspectives is crucial for most social activities such as teamwork, convincing others, etc. Selman (1976, 1980) designed an experiment to analyse this ability in children by doing the following:

  • Preparing different social scenarios.

  • Each scenario had several people (characters).

  • These social scenarios allowed the children to look at the situation from the point of view of several people.

  • After narrating the scenarios, the children had to answer a few open-ended questions to evaluate their response from other’s point-of-view.

The Development of Social Cognition Child contemplating before responding to perspective-taking scenarios StudySmarter

A child contemplating before responding to perspective-taking scenarios, Flaticon

Let’s take a look at an example scenario:

Emily was riding a bike in the park one day. While crossing a narrow bridge, she accidentally bumped a mother with a pushchair. Emily’s mother told her not to cross the narrow bridge again as it might be harmful.

The next day, Emily was playing her friend James on their bikes. Some children came, bullied James and snatched James’ bike running across the narrow bridge. Emily could still catch those kids riding on her bike; however, she remembered her mother’s advice.

Open-ended questions for children

  1. Should Emily go after the children that bullied her friend?
  2. In your opinion, will Emily’s mother tell her off?
  3. Will Emily think her mother will punish her if she chases the children?

The scenario includes the point-of-view of different people like Emily, James (her friend), Emily’s mother, the lady with the pushchair and the children who took away James bike. Selman collected the childrens’ responses and classified the responses into five different stages. Children gradually move from the first stage (egocentric) to the last stage (societal perspective-taking).

Stage

0. Egocentric perspective-taking

1. Social, informational perspective-taking

2. Self-reflexive Perspective-taking

3. Third-party perspective-taking

4. Societal perspective-taking

Age

36

59

712

1015

14adulthood

Stage characteristics

Children realise others have different thoughts than them. However, they may get confused between both.

Kids realise that people can have different opinions. People base their point-of-views on the amount of information they have of the situation.

The children can see the situation from the perspective of another person. They recognise that others can do the same.

They can now understand the point-of-view of two different people in a situation from a third-person perspective.

Adults understand society influences our opinions, such as religious and social values.

Example of responses from kids

In your opinion, will Emily’s mother tell her off?

No, she will express happiness about James receiving his bike back.

In your opinion, will Emily’s mother tell her off?

Yes, as Emily’s mother doesn’t know what made Emily go on the footbridge.

Will Emily think her mother will punish her if she chases the children?

No, Emily would think she would understand if she told her mother why she went through the footbridge.

Will Emily think her mother will punish her if she chases the children?

No, Emily was supposed to help her friend. Her mother would punish Emily if she thought she had gone to the footbridge to play.

Will Emily think her mother will punish her if she chases the children?

No, it is our responsibility to support someone who needs it (most importantly, younger people).

Evaluation of Selman’s perspective-taking

Let us now explore the strengths and weaknesses of Selman’s perspective-taking.

Strengths

  • The perspective-taking method by Selman is flexible and reliable, and many researchers used it for further research. Researchers can tailor this method according to the age of the children (e.g., using different scenarios or as an interview). Hoffman (1975) suggested the development of Selman’s perspective-taking to be related to parenting styles like victim-centred discipline (encouraging children to think about the feelings of someone they hurt).

  • Many scholars have provided supportive evidence for Selman’s work. Fitzgerald and White (2003) conducted a study with 93 school-age children and found a significant correlation between parenting style (victim-centred discipline) and Selman’s perspective-taking.

Weaknesses

  • According to Kurdek (1977), perspective-taking is a complex phenomenon that can be better understood through longitudinal studies. It is a complicated cognitive skill that cannot be limited to certain stages and needs longitudinal observations to be fully understood.

  • The understanding of perspective-taking is more complex, and Selman’s method is becoming outdated with the changing forms of communication. The new forms of communication (online) is changing the experience of social interactions, which is not traditionally personal anymore. Jarvela and Hakkinen (2003) explain that the development of social cognition (inclusive of perspective-taking) might change in humans due to rapid transformation towards web-based communications.

The role of the mirror neuron system in social cognition

Neurons are the nerves cells that communicate information to and from the brain through electrical impulses.

Mirror neurons are the nerve cells activated when someone performs an action or observes someone else performing the same action.

Research study by Rizzolatti et al. (1996)

The research was conducted on monkeys in the University of Parma by infusing thin electrodes in their brains to monitor the activity of individual neurons. The researchers analysed that a neuron called F5 would become activated when a monkey reached for a peanut to eat. F5 was also activated when the monkey (physically inactive) observed another monkey reach for a peanut to eat or heard another monkey cracking or munching peanuts. Researchers observed the following key factors while making the monkeys perform different tasks:

  • F5 (mirror neuron) was activated when there was a movement between the monkey’s hand and mouth for a target object (peanuts in this case).
  • Casual hand and mouth movements didn’t activate the mirror neurons without any target object within sight.
  • Mirror neurons also activated when the monkey heard another monkey hold and crack a peanut to eat.
  • Several mirror neurons activated during the movements of hands and mouth.

The Development of Social Cognition Monkeys reaching out for target object with hand-mouth movement StudySmarter
Monkey reaching out for target object with hand-mouth movement, Flaticon

Di Pellegrino et al. (1992)

The researchers found that specific neurons fire when monkeys perform goal-directed hand movements such as grasping, holding and tearing. The same neurons also fired when the monkeys watched the experimenters perform the same actions, such as grabbing a piece of food from a table and taking food from another experimenter’s hand.

Application of mirror neurons in empathy, action and imitation in humans

When we see someone else perform an action, such as reaching out for cookies, it activates the same neurons (mirror neurons) as if we performed that task (picking up cookies). This helps us understand our own goals and intentions if we performed that task.

‘I would be craving something sweet if I picked up those cookies.’ Similarly, ‘Ella picked up those cookies because she was craving something sweet too.’

Similarly, mirror neurons that are activated when we are in pain also get activated when observing someone else in pain, as per brain scanning studies such as Rizzolatti and Craighero (2006). This process is called empathy, to feel the pain of others and understand others situations.

People with low empathy scores may have less activity in the brain areas with mirror neurons (Gazzola et al., 2006), which may translate to why autistic people struggle with understanding others emotions and social impairment. Autistic people also had less cortical matter in the brain area responsible for mirror neurons, according to Hadjikhani et al. (2006).

An effectively functioning mirror neuron system can help us easily imitate any movement observed. Imitation of simple tasks or movement would take us twice as much effort if the mirror neuron system had defects. Autistic people have a less functioning mirror neuron system (Iacoboni, 2006), explaining their struggle with social communication. However, according to Dinstein et al. (2010), an fMRI showed autistic people could mirror movements like thumbs up or high five gestures without difficulty.

Evaluation of the role of mirror neurons

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the role of mirror neurons?

Strengths

Research into the mirror neuron explanation shows how it may play an essential role in autistic people’s development, explaining their social cognition and emotional struggles.

Weaknesses

  • The mirror neuron system in monkeys is not as complicated as in humans hence it cannot be comparable. Monkeys have a limited social cognition in areas like deception compared to humans, who have developed beyond the understanding of mirror neurons in monkeys.

  • The mirror neuron explanation is reductionist because it narrows down the explanation of social cognition and complex human behaviours, such as imitation, to just the functioning of mirror neurons. There can be overlapping explanations for social cognitions, such as parenting styles, family cultures etc.

The Sally-Anne test

In 1985, Baron-Cohen, Leslie and Frith designed a study to assess the theory of mind ability (the ability to understand others by attributing mental states to them) among autistic children called the Sally-Anne test.

The Sally-Anne test makes use of verbal instructions and enacted scenarios. It can only be used when the participants have well-formed language skills to attempt the test, fully understanding the instructions. The test involves a scenario with Sally and Anne dolls. Here is an illustration of the Sally-Anne test:

The Development of Social Cognition, illustration of the Sally-Ann test, StudysmarterIllustration of the Sally-Anne test, Mehak Fatima - StudySmarter Originals (Original images from Wikipedia)

Aim of the study

The researchers compared three groups of children (autistic children, children with Down syndrome, children with no psychological problems) for the theory of mind ability.

Sample details

All children varied in age but possessed a similar verbal age (matched for the same level of language understanding and development):

  • 20 autistic children with verbal age of five and a half years and actual age between 616.

  • 14 Down syndrome children with verbal age of 3 years and actual age between 616.

  • 27 children with no psychological impairment with verbal and actual age at four and a half years.

Study

After the researchers acted out the scenario, every child had to answer one ‘reality’ question, one ‘memory’ question and one ‘belief’ question as follows:

  • Reality: Actually, where is the ball?

  • Memory: Where was the ball initially?

  • Belief: Where will Sally search for her ball?

Children must answer the ‘belief’ question correctly to pass the test. The answer to the belief question was correct, if the children responded that Sally would look for a ball in the basket. As this shows, the children were thinking from Sally’s perspective, who was absent while Anne moved the ball to her box.

Findings

Only 20% of the autistic children answered the belief question correctly compared to 86% of children with Down syndrome and 85% of children with no psychological impairment. The results showed autistic children find it difficult to think from other people’s perspectives, hence lacking theory of mind.

Evaluation of Sally-Anne test

Finally, here are the pros and cons of the Sally-Anne test.

Strengths

  • Many researchers used this method for reference in understanding the connection between the theory of mind and autism after its publication. Roth (2008) outlined that autistic children show great difficulty in understanding and using concepts like ‘irony’ and ‘metaphorical language’ using this method.

Weaknesses

  • It is difficult to establish that a lack of theory of mind ability universally causes autism. Considering the Baron-Cohen et al. study, 20% of autistic children could still answer the belief question correctly, which wouldn’t have been possible if autism was precisely a result of a faulty theory of mind ability.

  • Chevallier (2012) elaborated that other psychological diseases than just autism also show a lack of ability of the theory of mind, such as depression and schizophrenia. This finding showed that lack of theory of mind ability is not just only related to autism but also other psychological diseases.

The Development of Social Cognition - Key takeaways

  • Social cognition is when we process information from our environment and memory to predict our actions and others.
  • The development of social cognition is best understood through Selman’s perspective-taking, the theory of mind, the Sally-Anne test and the role of mirror neurons.
  • Selman (1976,1980) suggested that looking at things from other people’s perspectives is crucial for most social activities such as teamwork, convincing others, etc. He proposed five stages that children go through to develop perspective-taking.
  • Mirror neurons are the nerve cells activated when someone performs an action or observes someone else performing the same action.
  • The Sally Anne test is designed to assess the theory of mind ability, which refers to understanding others by attributing mental states to them.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Development of Social Cognition

Suppose you hear of a sudden accident and the death of a friend’s parents. You empathise and help them with the funeral (since they are in shock) while putting yourself in the friend’s shoes.

Social cognition is important as it helps us become a part of society by observing others and predicting their behaviour while also showing the correct response.

Social cognition is when we process information from our environment and memory to predict our actions and that of others.

Some explanations of social cognition development are Selman's levels of perspective-taking, mirror neurons, theory of mind.

The Sally-Anne test is designed to assess the theory of mind ability, which refers to understanding others by attributing mental states to them.

Final The Development of Social Cognition Quiz

Question

Define the theory of mind.

Show answer

Answer

Theory of mind states others may have different mindsets and beliefs than us. They have different interpretations of events and their emotions and desires are entirely their own.

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Question

According to Premack and Woodruff (1978), the theory of mind enables us to predict the _____ and the behaviour of others while dealing socially with them.

Show answer

Answer

Mental state.

Show question

Question

The theory of mind originally begins to develop among children in the age bracket of ____ years of age.

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Answer

Four to five.

Show question

Question

What was the 'ways of thinking’ stage of the theory of mind? 

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Answer

They begin to understand that others may have different beliefs about the same thing. They determine the behaviour of people by what they think will happen.

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Question

Who proposed the phases or stages of the theory of mind?

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Answer

Wellman (2004) proposed the phases or stages of the theory of mind.

Show question

Question

What are the false beliefs in the stages of the theory of mind?

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Answer

People can have beliefs different from reality.

Show question

Question

What was Dennets (1978) explanation about false-belief tasks?

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Answer

Dennett (1978) explained the false belief task as a test allowing the researchers to adequately distinguish between the child’s original belief about something (true) and their realisation of a different belief of someone else (false).

Show question

Question

What are false belief tasks used for?

Show answer

Answer

False belief tasks are standard tests used to assess the child’s development of the theory of mind.

Show question

Question

What was actually inside the box in the false belief task by Wimmer et al. (1987)? 

Show answer

Answer

Pencils.

Show question

Question

What were the false belief task findings by Wimmer et al. (1987)?

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Answer

  • The children under three answer, ‘She will guess that there are pencils in the box.’
  • The children about four years old answered correctly with, ‘She will guess there is candy in the box.’
  • Children four years and older reflect on the theory of mind as they recognise that others may have a different opinion about a similar event.

Show question

Question

Who conducted the false belief task two?

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Answer

Wimmer and Perner (1983) conducted the false belief task two.

Show question

Question

What were the results of the false belief task by Wimmer and Perner (1983)?

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Answer

The children had to answer the following question: ‘Where will Maxi look for his chocolates when he returns?’

  • Children under four answered that Maxi would look in the green cupboard.
  • On the other hand, children under four answered that Maxi would look in the blue cupboard.

Show question

Question

What was the purpose of the false belief task by Wimmer and Perner (1983)?

Show answer

Answer

The children were supposed to differentiate between their own beliefs (chocolates are in the green cupboard) and the belief of Maxi (the chocolates are in the blue cupboard where he left them). The children begin to show the development of the theory of mind when they realise that their belief (true) was different from maxi’s belief (false).

Show question

Question

What did Baron-Cohen suggest about the reasoning behind Autism emergence?

Show answer

Answer

Baron-Cohen et al. (1985) proposed a famous explanation for autism. They suggested autism is diagnosed when there is an absence of the theory of mind or mentalising power in children.

Show question

Question

Why is Autism called the ‘Autistic spectrum disorder’?

Show answer

Answer

Autism has traits from different disorders (such as Asperger’s disorder) and is not a single condition, so it was called ‘Autistic spectrum disorder’.

Show question

Question

Explain social cognition.

Show answer

Answer

Our daily lives include processing information from external and internal means to predict situations and behaviours. Social interaction is one of the most critical elements we depend on as humans, where we respond after interpreting others’ behaviours. Similarly, social cognition refers to when we put ourselves in the place of others, understanding and predicting our own and their behaviour.

Show question

Question

Why did Selman design the perspective-taking levels?

Show answer

Answer

According to Selman (1976,1980), looking at things from other people’s perspectives is crucial for most social activities, such as teamwork or convincing others.

Show question

Question

How did Selman design the perspective-taking method?

Show answer

Answer

  • Preparing different social scenarios.
  • Each scenario had several people (characters).
  • These social scenarios allowed the children to look at the situation from the point of view of several people.
  • After narrating the scenarios, the children had to answer a few open-ended questions to evaluate their response from other’s point-of-view.

Show question

Question

What are the five stages or levels of Selman's perspective-taking? 

Show answer

Answer

  • Egocentric perspective-taking.
  • Social informational perspective-taking.
  • Self-reflexive perspective-taking.
  • Third-party perspective-taking.
  • Societal perspective-taking.

Show question

Question

Outline the stage characteristics of the egocentric perspective-taking.

Show answer

Answer

Children realise others have different thoughts than them. However, they may get confused between both.

Show question

Question

What was the stage characteristic for the age group of 10–15 years?

Show answer

Answer

They can now understand the point-of-view of two different people in a situation from a third-person perspective.

Show question

Question

What is victim-centred discipline?

Show answer

Answer

Victim-centred discipline implies enabling your children to put themselves in the shoes of the victim. For example, if James pushes and hurts Carlo, James mother may use this parenting style by asking, ‘How do you think Carlo felt when you hurt him?’

Show question

Question

Why is perspective-taking a flexible and reliable method?

Show answer

Answer

The perspective-taking method by Selman is flexible and reliable, and many researchers used it for further research. Researchers can tailor this method according to the age of the children (e.g., using different scenarios or as an interview). Hoffman (1975) used Selman's perspective-taking to relate to parenting styles like VCD.

Show question

Question

Why is Selman’s method considered to be outdated?

Show answer

Answer

Because of transforming communication forms.

Show question

Question

Define mirror neurons.

Show answer

Answer

Mirror neurons are the nerve cells activated when someone performs an action or observes someone else performing the same action.

Show question

Question

When were mirror neurons (especially F5) activated in monkeys?

Show answer

Answer

A neuron called F5 would become activated when a monkey reached for a peanut to eat. F5 was also activated when the monkey (physically inactive) observed another monkey reach for a peanut to eat or heard another monkey cracking or munching peanuts.

Show question

Question

F5 was activated when during a movement between the monkey’s hand and mouth without a target object. True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False. According to the study observations, hand and mouth movements activated the F5 mirror neuron when a monkey reached out for a target object.

Show question

Question

How is empathy related to mirror neurons?

Show answer

Answer

People with low empathy scores may have less activity in the brain areas with mirror neurons (Gazzola, Aziz-Zadeh and Keysers 2006), which may translate to why autistic people struggle with understanding others’ emotions and social impairment.

Show question

Question

The Sally Anne test only be used if participants have _______.

Show answer

Answer

Strong language skills

Show question

Question

Lack of theory of development is only present in autistic people. True or false?

Show answer

Answer

False. In 2012, Coralie Chevallier elaborated that other psychological diseases than just autism also show a lack of ability of the theory of mind, such as depression and schizophrenia. This finding indicated that lack of theory of mind ability is not only related to autism but also other psychological diseases.

Show question

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