ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2021, Vol. 29 ›› Issue (3): 472-480.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2021.00472

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The cognitive characteristics of and the brain mechanisms underlying social interaction processing from a third-person perspective

CHENG Yuhui, YUAN Xiangyong(), JIANG Yi   

  1. State Key Laboratory of Brain and Cognitive Science, CAS Center for Excellence in Brain Science and Intelligence Technology, Institute of Psychology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100101, China;Department of Psychology, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100049, China;Chinese Institute for Brain Research, Beijing 102206, China
  • Received:2020-05-14 Online:2021-03-15 Published:2021-01-26
  • Contact: YUAN Xiangyong


Social interaction can be defined as a process that one individual delivers his communicative intention through body or spoken languages, and the other individual makes a reaction according to his understanding of the intention. As inherently social beings, humans are equipped with a remarkable ability to rapidly recognize and decipher the communicative intentions embedded in others’ social interaction. This ability is not only fundamental to the development and survival of humans, but also to our daily interpersonal interaction. Recently, researchers have attached great importance to the cognitive characteristics and neural mechanisms underlying the social interaction processing from the third-person perspective. In their experiments, social interaction can be displayed through pictures, videos, the movements of point-light figures, and even simple geometric shapes that depicting biological motions. There are some prerequisites for ones’ activities being perceived as engaging in social interaction. Specifically, two agents should be spatially close and face-to-face, and their actions should be temporally contingent on each other and have definite meanings. Overall, there are two main cognitive characteristics manifested by the perception of social interaction: configuration integrity and action contingency. On the one hand, facing dyads engaging in social interaction would be represented as a single, holistic unit rather than as two independent individuals. By virtual of the global configuration processing, social interactive agents would gain preferential attention and be efficiently stored in memory. On the other hand, the interactive activities are temporally contingent and semantically related, which suggests that they may be processed in a contingent and predictive manner. Such action contingency processing allows observers to predict the upcoming interactive action, which thereby promotes the discrimination of social interaction in noisy environments. The social interaction processing activates three neural networks. The person-perception network is responsible for face and body perception, the action observation network engages in action recognition, and the mentalizing network is implicated in intention understanding. Among them, the person perception network is probably linked to representations of the global configuration of the interactive agents while the action observation network and the mentalizing network collectively support representations of the contingent actions of the interactive agents. It is also worth noting that the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) plays a key role and may serve as a specialized node in the perception of social interaction. From the perspective of hierarchical processing, recent researchers highlighted the importance of the effective connectivity between relevant brain areas in different stages of the social interaction processing. Future studies are encouraged to explore the heritability and neural mechanism of the social interaction processing by combining various technological methods, and to elucidate the cognitive characteristics of the social interaction processing in patients with social-cognitive disorders, which may provide new insights into the diagnosis and intervention for social deficits.

Key words: social interaction, third-person perspective, configural processing, action contingency, brain mechanism

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