Social Cognition and Language
Social cognition describes how we process and respond to information about the people around us, and to our social contexts, as well as how we apply that information to interact with the world around us. Humans seem to share many aspects of social cognition with other social animals. For example, dogs can learn by observation or from basic instruction how to interact with their owners in order to gain rewards and avoid punishment. They can learn that when we raise our voices and point at something, that we are mad and that they need to appease us. Or they can learn that when we smile at them and call them to us that we will probably give them a treat or a hug. They can apply this information to understand what humans other than their owners want from them, and to shape their future behavior. Humans can and do learn about their social environments in these ways too. For example, as young children we learn what will make our parents and friends angry or happy and we use this information to shape how we behave.
But as we get older, the way that we think about ourselves and other people changes in important ways. Around the time that we start speaking, we begin to place a great deal of significance on intentions when forming evaluative judgments about people (Saxe, 2006). In other words, we begin to recognize and care about what someone means to do when they do some good or bad action, and we use this information to shape how we think about and behave towards that person in the future. Thus, some researchers argue that while humans and non-human animals may share “implicit,” or more automatic and rudimentary, forms of social cognition, “explicit” social cognition is unique to humans because it relies on language (Frith & Frith, 2012). In other words, language enhances our abilities to process and respond to information in the social world, including the ability to reflect on our own mental states, and to reflect on mental states in general.
Unlike non-human animals and preverbal infants, we can also share and compare experiences, and we can explicitly cooperate in order to achieve collaborative goals. In other words, language enhances learning through deliberate communication, teaching, and cooperation. For example, we can learn to approach or avoid certain objects from verbal instruction, which saves us the time and effort of trial-by-error learning (Frith & Frith, 2012). The ability to explicitly think about the mental states of others furthermore allows us to think about the best ways to communicate complex ideas, teach each other skills, and regulate each other’s emotions towards a common end. Finally, language allows us to explicitly communicate cultural norms and to share culture-specific experiences, which shapes how we perceive the social world and attunes our brains to recognize and respond to important culture-specific social cues (Ames & Fiske, 2010). Thus, language enhances not only higher-level cognitive processing such as our abilities to think about other peoples’ minds, but also seems to play a significant role in how much, how quickly, and how thoroughly we can process information in order to apply it both individually and within a social context.
Another social cognitive ability that relates to our linguistic capacities is the ability to reflect on and modulate our own thoughts and behaviors. For example, a study by Zaki and colleagues (2012) demonstrated the role of language in the top-down modulation of competing social processes by comparing the pattern of brain activity associated with viewing video clips of people depicting positive or negative autobiographical events with written sentences describing such events. As predicted, the sentences elicited greater activity in the brain regions associated with executive control and the networks associated with thinking about other peoples’ minds (specifically the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex). Such research in neuroscience suggests that language plays a significant role in our abilities to regulate our decisions and actions. For example, such reflective awareness helps us manage our implicit biases of others to form more accurate judgments based on incoming information (Frith & Frith, 2012).
In sum, while we learn a great deal from the social world by observation and implicit social cognitive processes, language enhances our social cognitive abilities, including our abilities to think about our own minds, the minds of others, and to explicitly communicate important social and cultural information that directly informs how we behave and respond to the world around us. Whether explicit social cognition is truly unique to humans remains an open question (Frith & Frith, 2012), but the crucial role of language in these processes provides increasing support for the notion of certain unique human forms of social cognition.
Ames, D. L., & Fiske, S. T. (2010). Cultural neuroscience. Asian journal of social psychology, 13(2), 72-82.
Frith, C. D., & Frith, U. (2012). Mechanisms of social cognition. Annual review of psychology, 63, 287-313.
Saxe, R. (2006). Uniquely human social cognition. Current opinion in neurobiology, 16(2), 235-239.
Zaki, J., & Ochsner, K. N. (2012). The neuroscience of empathy: progress, pitfalls and promise. Nature neuroscience, 15(5), 675-680.