March 27, 2008

Who’s bad? Chimps figure it out by observation

thinkchimp.jpgChimpanzees make judgments about the actions and dispositions of strangers by observing others’ behavior and interactions in different situations. Specifically, chimpanzees show an ability to recognize certain behavioral traits and make assumptions about the presence or absence of these traits in strangers in similar situations thereafter. These findings, by Dr. Francys Subiaul – from the George Washington University in Washington DC – and his team, have just been published online in Animal Cognition, a Springer journal.

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January 22, 2008

San Marino Summer School on Social Cognition and Social Narrative

APPLICATION DEADLINE 1 March 2008. Please let your grad students know about this.

The European Science Foundation and the ESF project Consciousness in a Natural and Cultural Context is sponsoring a one-week interdisciplinary collegium/summer school on contemporary research in the area of social cognition, theory of mind, and narrative theory at the University of San Marino in San Marino (geographically within Italy). See the collegium website.

Organizers: Shaun Gallagher, Dan Hutto, Dan Zahavi.

The collegium/summer school is open to a limited number of graduate students and post-doc researchers interested in theory of mind and the role of narrative and embodied intersubjectivity in our understanding of others. Research presentations, discussions, and tutorial sessions will allow researchers and students to share knowledge and interact. Students will have the opportunity to earn 15 points in the ECTS system.

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December 10, 2007

Subliminal smells bias perception about a person’s likeability

From — Anyone who has bonded with a puppy madly sniffing with affection gets an idea of how scents, most not apparent to humans, are critical to a dog’s appreciation of her two-legged friends. Now new research from Northwestern University suggests that humans also pick up infinitesimal scents that affect whether or not we like somebody. “We evaluate people every day and make judgments about who we like or don’t like,” said Wen Li, a post-doctoral fellow in the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine and lead author of the study. “We may think our judgments are based only on various conscious bits of information, but our senses also may provide subliminal perceptual information that affects our behavior.”

“Subliminal Smells Can Guide Social Preferences” was published in the December issue of Psychological Science. Besides Li, the
study’s co-investigators include Isabel Moallem, Loyola University; Ken Paller, professor of psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern; and Jay Gottfried, assistant professor of neurology at Feinberg and senior author of the paper.

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November 26, 2007

Social neuroeconomics: the neural circuitry of social preferences

Combining the methods of neuroscience and economics generates powerful tools for studying the brain processes behind human social interaction. We argue that hedonic interpretations of theories of social preferences provide a useful framework that generates interesting predictions and helps interpret brain activations involved in altruistic, fair and trusting behaviors. These behaviors are consistently associated with activation in reward-related brain areas, such as the striatum, and with prefrontal activity implicated in cognitive control, the processing of emotions, and integration of benefits and costs, consistent with resolution of a conflict between self-interest and other-regarding motives.

Fehr & Camerer in Trends in Cognitive Science 2007 Oct ; 11(10): 419-27


PDF of article

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Is Theory of Mind dependent on episodic memory?

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November 22, 2007

Morality starts young

The key to successful social interactions is the ability to assess others’ intentions — be they friend or foe. A new study in 6- and 10-month-old infants shows that humans engage in social evaluations even earlier than was thought, before they can use language. The infants could evaluate actors on the basis of their social acts — they were drawn towards an individual who helps an unrelated third party to achieve his or her goal, and they avoided an individual who hinders a third party’s efforts to achieve a goal. The findings support the claim that precursors to adult-like social evaluation are present even in babies. This skill could be a biological adaptation that may also serve as the foundation for moral thought and action later in life.

Editor summary in Nature

Nature article by Hamlin, Wynn & Bloom

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November 13, 2007

That friendly car is smiling at me: When products are perceived as people

From A forthcoming study from the Journal of Consumer Research looks at how consumers anthropomorphize products, endowing a car or a pair of shoes with human characteristics and personalities. The researchers, from the University of Toronto and the University of Chicago, find that people are more likely to attribute human qualities or traits to inanimate objects if the product fits with their expectations of relevant human qualities – and are also more likely to positively evaluate an anthropomorphized item.

“We sometimes see cars as loyal companions going so far as to name them. We argue with, cajole, and scold malfunctioning computers and engines,” explain Pankaj Aggarwal (University of Toronto) and Ann L. McGill (University of Chicago). “We find that if the product has a feature that is typically associated with a human prototype, then people are more likely to humanize the product, and also evaluate it more

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November 10, 2007

Distance changes face perception?

illusion,perception,social psychology — thomasr @ 4:14 am

Illusion%20image.jpgThis is  probably one of the best illusions ever! Please do the following: look at the above images from your seat in front of the computer; Mr. Angry is on the left, and Ms.Calm is on the right. Now, get up from your seat, and move back 10 or 12 feet. Who’s the angry and calm now?


It’s said that this illusion was made by Phillippe G.Schyns and Aude Oliva. Cudos to Robert Karl Stonjek for showing us this illusion.

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October 24, 2007

To determine election outcomes, study says snap judgments are sufficient

A split-second glance at two candidates’ faces is often enough to determine which one will win an election, according to a Princeton University study.

Princeton psychologist Alexander Todorov has demonstrated that quick facial judgments can accurately predict real-world election returns. Todorov has taken some of his previous research that showed that people unconsciously judge the competence of an unfamiliar face within a tenth of a second, and he has moved it to the political arena. His lab tests show that a rapid appraisal of the relative competence of two candidates’ faces was sufficient to predict the winner in about 70 percent of the races for U.S. senator and state governor in the 2006 elections.

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October 22, 2007

Empathy for Pain and Touch in the Human Somatosensory Cortex

empathicpain.jpegAlthough feeling pain and touch has long been considered inherently private, recent neuroimaging and neurophysiological studies hint at the social implications of this experience. Here we used somatosensory-evoked potentials (SEPs) to investigate whether mere observation of painful and tactile stimuli delivered to a model would modulate neural activity in the somatic system of an onlooker.

Viewing video clips showing pain and tactile stimuli delivered to others, respectively, increased and decreased the amplitude of the P45 SEP component that reflects the activity of the primary somatosensory cortex (S1). These modulations correlated with the intensity but not with the unpleasantness of the pain and touch ascribed to the model or the aversion induced in the onlooker by the video clips. Thus, modulation of S1 activity contingent upon observation of others’ pain and touch may reflect the mapping of sensory qualities of observed painful and tactile stimuli.

Results indicate that the S1 is not only involved in the actual perception of pain and touch but also plays an important role in extracting somatic features from social interactions.

Bufalari et al. in Cerebral Cortex

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September 9, 2007

Science: special issue on social cognition

socialcognition.jpegScience is running a special edition on social cognition this week. It contains papers on the evolution of social cognition

Living in Societies – Caroline Ash, Gilbert Chin, Elizabeth Pennisi, and Andrew Sugden

All Together Now–Pull! – Greg Miller

Evolution in the Social Brain – R. I. M. Dunbar and Susanne Shultz

Social Components of Fitness in Primate Groups – Joan B. Silk

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September 6, 2007

Higher social skills are uniquely human

chimp1.jpgA new study published today in Science reports that humans have distinctive social skills. Esther Herrmann, lead author of the study, answers Scitizen’s questions.

Apes bite and try to break a tube to retrieve the food inside while children follow the experimenter’s example to get inside the tube to retrieve the prize, showing that even before preschool, toddlers are more sophisticated in their social learning skills than their closest primate relatives, according to a report published in the 7 September issue of the journal Science.

This innate proficiency allows them to excel in both physical and social skills as they begin school and progress through life.

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August 26, 2007

When the Need to Belong Goes Wrong

socialphobia.jpegWhen the Need to Belong Goes Wrong: The Expression of Social Anhedonia and Social Anxiety in Daily Life

People possess an innate need to belong that drives social interactions. Aberrations in the need to belong, such as social anhedonia and social anxiety, provide a point of entry for examining this need. The current study used experience-sampling methodology to explore deviations in the need to belong in the daily lives of 245 undergraduates. Eight times daily for a week, personal digital assistants signaled subjects to complete questionnaires regarding affect, thoughts, and behaviors.

As predicted, higher levels of social anhedonia were associated with increased time alone, greater preference for solitude, and lower positive affect. Higher social anxiety, in contrast, was associated with higher negative affect and was not associated with increased time alone. Furthermore, greater social anxiety was associated with greater self-consciousness and preference to be alone while interacting with unfamiliar people.

Thus, deviations in the need to belong affect social functioning differently depending on whether this need is absent or thwarted.

Psychologial Science

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August 2, 2007

Ventromedial moral

ventromedialpfc.jpegDoes the ventromedial prefrontal cortex play a role in personal moral judgment? has a nice report on 7 patients with lesions in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex that find that “the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is necessary to oppose personal moral violations, possibly by mediating anticipatory, self-focused, emotional reactions that may exert strong influence on moral choice and behavior.”

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June 18, 2007

The human mirror system: A motor resonance theory of mind-reading

janegoodall.jpgElectrophysiological data confirm the existence of neurons that respond to both motor and sensory events in the macaque brain. These mirror neurons respond to execution and observation of goal-orientated actions. It has been suggested that they comprise a neural basis for encoding an internal representation of action. In this paper the evidence for a parallel system in humans is reviewed and the implications for human theory of mind processing are discussed. Different components of theory of mind are discussed; the evidence for mirror activity within subtypes is addressed. While there is substantial evidence for a human mirror system, there are weaknesses in the attempts to localize such a system in the brain. Preliminary evidence indicates that mirror neurons may be involved in theory of mind; however, these data by their very nature are reliant on the presence, and precise characterization, of the human mirror system.


Agnew ZK, Bhakoo KK, Puri BK
Brain Res Rev. 2007 Jun ; 54(2): 286-293

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March 24, 2007

Beliefs about the rigidity of personality

happyface.jpgHow do people reason about personality, and how people change or stay the same over time? In a study by Nick Haslam and colleagues lay theories of personality over time was explored. Among other things the researchers found that beliefs about normative personality change generally corresponded to research evidence on adult trajectories of the Big Five factors; and that recalled and anticipated personal change tended to be more positive than these norms

One potential shortcoming of the study is that it used only undergraduates. It would be interesting to see how the perception of personality continuity would also change according to ageing (as well as across different educational groups).

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March 22, 2007

Altruistic punishment

Why do we punish others? And why do we punish when it is personally costly? In a recent review in Nature Review Neuroscience Ben Seymour and colleagues discuss the neurobiology of punishment.

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March 21, 2007

They love to make you mad

angry.gifSome people find angry looks from others so rewarding they go out of their way to encourage them, Michigan researchers said.

“It’s kind of striking that an angry facial expression is consciously valued as a very negative signal by almost everyone, yet at a non-conscious level can be like a tasty morsel that some people will vigorously work for,” said Oliver Schultheiss, University of Michigan associate professor of psychology.

His study may explain why some people like to tease each other, he said.

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March 8, 2007

Can we improve mind reading?

oxytocin.pngIs it possible to improve our ability to read other’s minds? In the case of mind-reading disabilities such as that found in autism spectrum disorder, it has been suggested that it is possible to train patients to become better at reading other’s minds.

What, then about pharmacological interventions? Is there an “empathy drug” that makes us more empathic? In a priority communication in Biological Psychiatry, Domes et al. report that the administration of oxitocin (relative to placebo effect) improves the ability to infer the mental state of others from social cues of the eye region. Hubmed abstract; Full Text.

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February 20, 2007

Biological Psychiatry — Special issue on autism

autist.gifThe journal Biological Psychiatry has a special issue on the autism spectrum, its diagnosis and treatment.

It is a comprehensive yet diverse collection of multidisciplinary treatment of the issue, containing articles onautism and phenotypic homogeneity; cortical layering and thickness; cortical dysfunction; executive function and gaze fixation.

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