This article is part of the Research Topic The Neural Mechanisms of Social Vision

Original Research ARTICLE

Front. Integr. Neurosci., 25 January 2013 |

What is social about social perception research?

  • 1Brain Mapping Unit, Department of Psychiatry, Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK
  • 2Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Medical Research Council, Cambridge, UK
  • 3Department of Psychology, Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

A growing consensus in social cognitive neuroscience holds that large portions of the primate visual brain are dedicated to the processing of social information, i.e., to those aspects of stimuli that are usually encountered in social interactions such as others' facial expressions, actions, and symbols. Yet, studies of social perception have mostly employed simple pictorial representations of conspecifics. These stimuli are social only in the restricted sense that they physically resemble objects with which the observer would typically interact. In an equally important sense, however, these stimuli might be regarded as “non-social”: the observer knows that they are viewing pictures and might therefore not attribute current mental states to the stimuli or might do so in a qualitatively different way than in a real social interaction. Recent studies have demonstrated the importance of such higher-order conceptualization of the stimulus for social perceptual processing. Here, we assess the similarity between the various types of stimuli used in the laboratory and object classes encountered in real social interactions. We distinguish two different levels at which experimental stimuli can match social stimuli as encountered in everyday social settings: (1) the extent to which a stimulus' physical properties resemble those typically encountered in social interactions and (2) the higher-level conceptualization of the stimulus as indicating another person's mental states. We illustrate the significance of this distinction for social perception research and report new empirical evidence further highlighting the importance of mental state attribution for perceptual processing. Finally, we discuss the potential of this approach to inform studies of clinical conditions such as autism.

Keywords: social perception, social neuroscience, interaction, gaze perception, face perception, mental state attribution, theory of mind, autism

Citation: Teufel C, von dem Hagen E, Plaisted-Grant KC, Edmonds JJ, Ayorinde JO, Fletcher PC and Davis G (2013) What is social about social perception research? Front. Integr. Neurosci. 6:128. doi: 10.3389/fnint.2012.00128

Received: 24 July 2012; Paper pending published: 16 September 2012;
Accepted: 18 December 2012; Published online: 25 January 2013.

Edited by:

Sidney A. Simon, Duke University, USA

Reviewed by:

Ullrich Wagner, Charité - University Medicine Berlin, Germany
Antonio Pereira, Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil

Copyright © 2013 Teufel, von dem Hagen, Plaisted-Grant, Edmonds, Ayorinde, Fletcher and Davis. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited and subject to any copyright notices concerning any third-party graphics etc.

*Correspondence: Christoph Teufel, Brain Mapping Unit, Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge, Sir William Hardy Building, Downing Site, Cambridge CB2 3EB, UK e-mail: