Social-Cognitive Neuroscience
Psychology 1055

1. Prelude

1. Orientation to the Parent Disciplines

Social-cognitive neuroscience is an emerging scientific discipline that attempts to integrate the theories, methods, and insights of social cognition and cognitive neuroscience. Although these disciplines share a focus on the information-processing mechanisms that underlie behavior, they move beyond those mechanisms in opposite directions. Cognitive neuroscience moves "downward" into the brain, with the aim of relating particular mental abilities (such as visual-spatial attention, working memory, and so forth) to the structure and function of neural systems. In contrast, social cognition moves from the information-processing mechanism "upward," into the phenomenology of the person himself or herself, exploring the social, cognitive, and affective forces that motivate particular behaviors, and the consequences that follow from them.

Recommended background readings:

Ochsner, K. N. & Kosslyn, S. M. (in press). Constraints and Convergence: The cognitive neuroscience approach. In D. Rumelhart & B. Martin (Eds.) The Handbook of Cognition and Perception, vol. X. San Diego: Academic Press. [selection: p. 1-14]

Posner, M. L. & Rothbart. M. (1994). Constructing neuronal theories of mind. In Large Scale Neuronal Theories of Mind. C. Koch & J. L. Davis (Eds.). p. 183-199.

Ross, L., & Nisbett, R. E. (1991). The person and the situation: Perspectives of social psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill. [selection: pp. 1-26]

2. Why Social-Cognitive Neuroscience?

Social cognition and cognitive neuroscience are independent academic disciplines that interact sparingly. There are at least three reasons why neither discipline can afford this independence. First, the brain is an evolutionary adaptation to a social environment and is best understood in that context. Second, human brains interact with other human brains in a complex social network that produces phenomena that cannot be reduced. And finally, complete explanations of behavior always require multiple levels of analysis.


Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (1995). From function to structure: The role of evolutionary biology and computational theories in cognitive neuroscience. In M. S. Gazzaniga (Ed.), The Cognitive Neurosciences (pp. 1199-1210). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Buss, D. M. & Kenrick, D. T. (1998). Evolutionary social psychology. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey (Eds.), Handbook of Social Psychology, 4th Ed. New York, NY: McGraw Hill. [selection: pp. 1011-1013].

Wegner, D. M. (1995). A computer network model of human transactive memory. Social Cognition, 13(3), 319-339.

Caccioppo, J. T., & Berntson, G. G. (1992). Social psychological contributions to the decade of the brain. American Psychologist, 47(8), 1019-1028.

Williams, N. (1997). Biologists cut reductionism down to size. Science, 277, 476-477.


II. Reality

3. Reflexion and Reflection: A Tale of Two Systems

The primary function of a brain is to allow its owner to function in the world. The human brain does this by generating and using knowledge about people, places, things, and the relations among them. This knowledge is generated and used by two general classes or kinds of brain systems: a largely nonconscious, nonverbal system that reacts automatically and reflexively to objects and events in the world (the X-system) and a conscious, largely verbal system that reflects on (and sometimes repudiates) those reactions (the C-system).

Sloman, S. A. (1996). The empirical case for two systems of reasoning. Psychological Bulletin, 119(1), 3-22.

McClelland, J. L., McNaughton, B. L., & O'Reilly, R. C. (1995). Why there are complementary learning systems in the hippocampus and neocortex: Insights from the successes and failures of connectionist models of learning and memory. Psychological Review, 102(3), 419-437. [selection pp. 419-436; pp.440]

Smith, E. R., & DeCoster, J. (1997). Heuristic-Systematic and other dual process models in social and cognitive psychology: An integration and connectionist interpretation. Unpublished manuscript, Purdue University.

Kosslyn, S. M. (1995). Freud returns? In R. L. Solso and D. W. Massarro (Eds.), The science of the mind: 2001 and beyond (pp. 90-106). New York: Oxford Univeristy Press. [selection: pp. 93-99]

4. Constructivism: Principles of the X-System

The X-system constructs subjective reality by using prior information to interpret incoming information. Although this tendency facilitates our attempts to know the world by "automatically" speeding comprehension, filling in missing information, guiding attention and retrieval, and so on, it can also lead us to err. One of the most vexing errors occurs when the C-system does not realize that the X-systemís interpretation of incoming information was influenced by prior information (referred to as "naive realism").

Hundert, E. M. (1995). Lessons from an optical illusion. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. [selection: chapter 3, "Constructing experience," pp. 32-43 ]

Schacter, D. L. (1996). Searching for memory: The brain, the mind, and the past. New York NY: Basic Books, Inc. [selection: from chapter 4 "The perils of prior experience," and "Cues that confuse" pp. 98-113]

Loftus, E. F. (1992). When a lie becomes memoryís truth: Memory distortion after exposure to misinformation. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 1(4), p. 121-123.

Anderson, J. R. (1990). Cognitive Psychology and its Implications. New York NY: W. H. Freeman and Co. [selection: "Context and pattern recognition" pp. 75-82]

Gilovich, T. (1991). How we know what isnít so. New York, NY: The Free Press. [selection: chapter 5: "Believing what we expect to see," pp. 75-87]

Griffin, D. W., & Ross, L. (1991). Subjective construal, social inference, and human misunderstanding. In M. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 24, pp. 319-356). New York: Academic Press.

5. Correction: Strategies of the C-System

Things are not always what they seem, and it is the C-systemís job to interrogate and occasionally repudiate the subjective reality that the X-system produces. To do so, the C-system must be able to tell (a) whether the X-systemís processing of incoming information was influenced by prior information ("Is the fat man really jolly? Did I actually see him smile?"), (b) which of several sources of incoming information produced the X-systemís conclusions ("Did he strike me as jolly because he was fat or because he was smiling?"), and (c) whether the incoming information was already "contaminated" by the observer ("Did he smile at me because I smiled at him first?").

Schacter, D. L. (1996). Searching for memory: The brain, the mind, and the past. New York NY: Basic Books, Inc. [selection: from chapter 4, on source memory, pp. 114-133]

Koutstaal, W., & Schacter, D. L. (1997). Innacuracy and inaccessibility in memory retreival: Contributions from cognitive psychology. In: P. S. Applebaum, L. A. Uyehara, & M. R. Erin (Eds.), Trauma and memory: Clinical and Legal Controversies. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [selection: pp. 112-116]

Moscovitch, M. (1995). Confabulation. In D. L. Schacter (Ed.), Memory distortion: How minds, brains, and societies reconstruct the past. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. [selection: pp. 226-234; pp. 240-247]

Wilson, T. D., & Brekke, N. (1994). Mental contamination and mental correction: Unwanted influences on judgments and evaluations. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 117-142.

Gilbert, D. T. (1994). Attribution and interpersonal perception. In A. Tesser (Ed.), Advanced social psychology (pp. 99-147). New York: McGraw-Hill. [selection: pp. 126-141]


III. Knowledge

6. Knowledge of Others

Other human beings are the most important and complex "objects" that we can know. What makes them so important is that they control virtually all the rewards toward which we strive. What makes them so complex is that (a) they are "willful," and thus their behavior is imperfectly predictable from knowledge of antecedent conditions, and (b) the attributes that enable us to predict them (even imperfectly) must be inferred, and that inferential process is naturally susceptible to error. Perhaps because of a developmental impairment in a set of specialized neural mechanisms, some people (autistics) seem unable to take the first step in this inferential process (identifying intentional actions), whereas the rest of us tend to have more problems with the second inferential step (inferring the causes of those actions).

Baron-Cohen, S. (1995). Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. [selection: Chapters 1-6, pp. 1-96].

Gilbert, D. T. (1998). Ordinary personology. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey, (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (4th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill. [selection pp. 89-120]

7. Knowledge of Self

Of all the people whom one can know, the self is perhaps the most vexing. How do we attain self-knowledge? Direct knowledge of the self may be severely limited, and we may come to know ourselves largely by observing our own behavior and then "inventing stories" that explain it. The frontal lobes help us construct these stories, and damage to them or their connections can either render us "selfless," or leave us unable to tell our "true" from our "false" selves.

Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84, 231-259.

Bem, D. J. (1970). Beliefs, attitudes, and human affairs. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co. [selection: pp. 50-66].

Gazzaniga, M. S. (1995). Consciousness and the cerebral hemispheres. In M. S. Gazzaniga (Ed.), The cognitive neurosciences (pp. 1391-1400). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Stuss, D. T. (1991). Disturbance of self-awareness after frontal system damage. In G. P. Prigatano & D. L. Schacter (Eds.), Awareness of deficit after brain injury: Clinical and theoretical issues (pp. 63-83). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

8. Is Reality Necessary?

The kinds of stories we invent about present and past behaviors are often slanted in our favor, maximizing benevolent perception of ourselves by inflating the importance, centrality, and good intent of our actions. This may make us feel happy, hopeful, and effective, but it may also deprive us of information that we deseparately need. Are self-serving perceptions dangerous distortions or adaptive constructions? Different neural mechanisms may produce our rosy and our realistic perceptions, and bad things may happen when these two mechanisms fall out of balance.

Taylor, S. E., & Brown, J. D. (1988). Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health. Psychological Bulletin, 103(2), 193-210.

Gilbert, D. T. (1998). Ordinary personology. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey, (Eds.), Handbook of social psychology (4th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill. [selection pp. 120-140]

Ramachandran, V. S. (1995). Anosagnosia in parietal lobe syndrome. Consciousness and Cognition, 4, 22-55.


IV. Emotion

9. The Nature of Emotion

Emotions are evolutionary adaptations that tell us (a) whether objects and events in the world are relevant to our needs and goals, and (b) how we should respond to their presence or absence. Some theorists focus on the former, arguing that emotions are understood best as either automatic reactions to stimuli, or that emotions cannot be experienced without some prior deliberation about the object or event. Other theorists focus on the latter, arguing that all emotions involve one or both of two fundamental types of behavioral responses: approach and avoidance.

LeDoux, J. E. (1996). The emotional brain: The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster. [selection: chapter 3, "Blood, sweat, and tears," pp. 43-72, and chapter 6, "A few degrees of separation," pp. 139-178]

Lazarus, R. (1991). Progress on a cognitive-motivational-relational theory of emotion. American Psychologist, 46(8), 819-834.

Davidson, R. J. (1993). Parsing affective space: Perspectives from neuropsychology and psychophysiology. Neuropsychology, 7(4), 464-475.

10. Passion and Reason

The experience of emotions can exert profound influence on cognitive processes such as memory and judgment. Some theorists think of emotions as primitive responses that tend to bias cognition and thus promote irrationality, whereas others think of them as "wise" responses that serve to inform and guide cognition and thus promote rationality.

Forgas, J. P. (1995). Mood and judgment: The affect infusion model (AIM). Psychological Bulletin, 117(1), 39-66.

Damasio, A. (1994). Descartesí error. New York, NY: G. P. Putnamís Sons. [selection: pp. 1-52; 205-222]

Bechara, A., Damasio, H., Tranel, D., & Damasio, A. R. (1996). Failure to respond autonomically to anticipated future outcomes following damage to prefrontal cortex. Cerebral Cortex, 6, 215-225.

V. Control

11. Control through the X-System

When objects and events in the environment activate the X-system, we may find ourselves performing actions, thinking thoughts, or experiencing feelings that we did not intend. Furthermore, the C-system may be unaware of the objects or events that evoked these responses. When this happens, we tend to say that we have responded automatically or that the environment has controlled our behavior. This tendency may be adaptive, but it can also have unfortunate consequences.

Wegner, D. M., & Bargh, J. (1997). Automaticity and mental control. In D. T. Gilbert, S. T. Fiske, & G. Lindzey, (Eds.), The handbook of social psychology (4th ed.). New York: McGraw Hill. [selection: pp. 446-449, pp. 459-465].

Bargh, J. A. & Barndollar, K. (1996). Automaticity in action: The unconscious as repository of chronic goals and motives. In P. M. Gollwitzer & J. A. Bargh (Eds.), The psychology of action: Linking cognition and motivation to behavior (pp. 457-481). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Wegner, D. M. (in press). The illusion of conscious will. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. [selection: chapters. 1 & 2]

Saint-Cyr, J. A. & Taylor, A. E. (1992). The mobilization of procedural learning: The "key signature" of the basal ganglia. In L. R. Squire & N. Butters (Eds.), Neuropsychology of memory, 2nd ed. ( pp. 188-202). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

12. Control by the C-System

The environment may control us on some occasions by activating the X-system, but on many other occasions the C-system exercises willful control over our thoughts. Although frontal lobe damage can severely impair this ability, normal people may also have trouble with mental control. One of the most effective ways to control oneís thoughts is to control the information to which one is exposed, which is something that people seem quite capable of doing.


Wegner, D. M. (1992). You can't always think what you want: Problems in the suppression of unwanted thoughts. In M. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 25, pp. 193-225). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Stuss, D. T., & Benson, D. F. (1987). The frontal lobes and the control of cognition and memory. In E. Perecman (Ed.), The frontal lobes revisited (pp. 141-158). New York: IRBN Press.

Rapoport, J. L. (1989). The boy who couldnít stop washing: The experience and treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder. New York: Penguin Books. [selection: pp. 82-108; 187-199; 207-220]

Wegner, D. M. (1990) White bears and other unwanted thoughts: The psychology of mental control. New York: Viking Press. [selection: chapter 5, "The remote control of thinking," pp. 77-98].

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