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3.2: Social Cognition

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    The human faculty of Social Cognition


    Playing football as a complex social activity

    Humans are by far the most talented species in reading the minds of others. That means we are able to successfully predict what other humans perceive, intend, believe, know or desire. Among these abilities, understanding the intention of others is crucial. It allows us to resolve possible ambiguities of physical actions. For example, if you were to see someone breaking a car window, you would probably assume he was trying to steal a stranger's car. He would need to be judged differently if he had lost his car keys and it was his own car that he was trying to break into. Humans also collaborate and interact culturally. We perform complex collaborative activities, like building a house together or playing football as a team. Over time this led to powerful concepts of organizational levels like societies and states. The reason for this intense development can be traced back to the concept of Shared Intentionality.

    Shared Intentionality

    An intentional action is an organism's intelligent behavioural interaction with its environment towards a certain goal state. This is the concept of Problem Solving, which was already described in the previous chapter.

    The social interaction of agents in an environment which understand each other as acting intentionally causes the emergence of Shared Intentionality. This means that the agents work together towards a shared goal in collaborative interaction. They do that in coordinated action roles and mutual knowledge about themselves. The nature of the activity or its complexity is not important, as long as the action is carried out in the described fashion. It is important to mention that the notion of shared goals means that the internal goals of each agent include the intentions of the others. This can easily be misinterpreted. For example, take a group of apes on a hunt. They appear to be acting in a collaborative way, however, it is reasonable to assume that they do not have coordinated action roles or a shared goal – they could just be acting towards the same individual goal. Summing up, the important characteristics of the behaviour in question are that the agents are mutually responsive, have the goal of achieving something together and coordinate their actions with distributed roles and action plans.

    The strictly human faculty to participate in collaborative actions that involve shared goals and socially coordinated action plans is also called Joint Intention. This requires an understanding of the goals and perceptions of other involved agents, as well as sharing and communicating these, which again seems to be a strictly human behaviour. Due to our special motivation to share psychological states, we also need certain complex cognitive representations. These representations are called dialogic cognitive representations, because they have as content mostly social engagement. This is especially important for the concept of joint intentions, since we need not only a representation for our own action plan, but also for our partner's plan. Joint Intentions are an essential part of Shared Intentionality.

    Dialogic cognitive representations are closely related with the communication and use of linguistic symbols. They allow in some sense a form of collective intentionality, which is important to construct social norms, conceptualize beliefs and, most importantly, share them. In complex social groups the repeated sharing of intentions in a particular interactive context leads to the creation of habitual social practices and beliefs. That may form normative or structural aspects of a society, like government, money, marriage, etc. Society might hence be seen as a product and an indicator of Social Cognition.

    The social interaction that builds ground for activities involving Shared Intentionality is proposed to be divided into three groups:

    • Dyadic engagement: The simple sharing of emotions and behaviour, by means of interaction and direct mutual response between agents. Dyadic interaction between human infants and adults are called protoconversations. These are turn-taking sequences of touching, face expressions and vocalisations. The exchange of emotions is the most important outcome of this interaction.
    • Triadic engagement: Two agents act together towards a shared goal, while monitoring the perception and goal-direction of the other agent. They focus on the same problem and coordinate their actions respectively, which makes it possible to predict following events.
    • Collaborative engagement: The combination of Joint Intentions and attention. At this point, the agents share a goal and act in complementary roles with a complex action plan and mutual knowledge about the selective attention and the intentions of one another. The latter aspect allows the agents to assist each other and reverse or take over roles.

    These different levels of social engagement require the understanding of different aspects of intentional action, as introduced above, and presuppose the motivation to share psychological states with each other.

    Development of Social Cognition during childhood


    Children making social experiences

    A crucial point for Social Cognition is the comprehension of intentional action. Children's understanding of intentional action can basically be divided into three groups, each representing a more complex level of grasp.

    1. The first one to be mentioned is the identification of animate action. This means that after a couple of months, babies can differentiate between motion that was caused by some external influence and actions that an organism has performed by itself, as an animate being. At this stage, however, the child has not yet any understanding of potential goals the observed actor might have, so it is still incapable of predicting the behaviour of others.
    2. The next stage of comprehension includes the understanding that the organism acts with persistence towards achieving a goal. Children can now distinguish accidental incidents from intentional actions and failed from successful attempts. This ability develops after about 9 months. With this new perspective, the child also learns that the person it observes has a certain perception - thus a certain amount of predicting behaviour is possible. This is an essential difference between the first and the second stage.
    3. After around 14 months of age, children fully comprehend intentional action and the basics of rational decision making. They realise, that an actor pursuing a goal may have a variety of action plans to achieve a goal, and is choosing between them. Furthermore, a certain sense for the selective attention of an agent develops. This allows a broad variety of predictions of behaviour in a certain environment. In addition to that, children acquire the skill of cultural learning: when they observe how an individual successfully reaches a goal, they memorise the procedure. Hence, they can use the methods to reach their own goals. This is called imitative learning, which turns out to be an extremely powerful tool. By applying this technique, children also learn how things are conventionally done in their culture.

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