Social Cognition and Moral Evaluation in Early Human Childhood

By Andreas Falck, Brent Strickland, and Pierre Jacob.

Intro: Human Social Cognition and Developmental Psychology

Human social cognition is the human capacity to process social stimuli, to intentionally convey socially relevant information to others, and to make use of socially transmitted information. Several human social cognitive capacities are special and set humans apart from non-human animals. Thanks to these capacities, humans are unique in their ability to create, maintain, and alter large social groups within which they coordinate, cooperate, and also compete. Moreover, there are few (if any) other biological species in which groups or crowds of individuals spend as much collective effort in attacking other groups or in defending their own group from the attacks of others (Boyer, 2018; Tooby & Cosmides, 2010). Humans also appear to be unique in their capacity for stable cultural transmission over many generations and for the pervasiveness of their moral cognitive concerns.

Human social cognition is a relatively recent and highly interdisciplinary topic of investigation in the cognitive sciences, ranging from evolutionary psychology to social cognitive neuroscience to developmental psychology. For example, evolutionary psychologists who advocate the “social brain hypothesis” have highlighted the correlation between the fact that humans have an unusually large brain in relation to their body size and the fact that they live in unusually large social groups, compared to all other biological species

(cf. Dunbar, 1992, 2003). Advocates of the so-called Macchiavellian intelligence hypothesis have suggested that the evolutionary arms race between the strategic demands for cooperation and competition among members of complex social groups must have placed strong selective pressures on human cognition, including the capacity to read others’ minds or attribute mental states to others (cf. Byrne & Whiten, 1988; Humphrey, 1976).

This chapter focuses on a complementary body of work in developmental psychology, from the past forty years or so, devoted to the investigation of early social cognitive competencies in young human children and even in preverbal human infants. Now is a timely moment to write this chapter given that the field has undergone a recent transition in methods, that has radically changed how we understand the developmental origins of social cognition. Much early work relied on either action-based or verbal tasks, thus limiting researchers’ ability to test for precocious abilities in pre-verbal infants. However, a shift occurred in developmental psychology in the 1980s with the advent of behavioral methods based on looking behavior. The violation-of- expectation method exploits the reliable tendency to look longer at unexpected rather than at expected events for the purpose of probing infant cognition. The anticipatory gaze method makes use of an eye-tracker to monitor infants’ first gaze in anticipation of where an agent is likely to act. Though these methods were originally mainly applied to understand infants’ representations of their non-social environment (e.g. their naive sense of physics and number), they have recently been applied to help reveal preverbal infants’ expectations regarding their social environments.

Surprisingly, much developmental evidence suggests that early on young human children can represent both enduring (or stable) and episodic (or transient) social features of their conspecifics. For example, they can represent other people as agents, as speaking their mothers’ tongue, as male or female, all of which are enduring social features likely to persist throughout an individual’s lifespan. They can also attribute transient mental states to others, ranging from emotions to beliefs, most of which can change from moment to moment. In what follows, we first review developmental research into early sensitivity to, and understanding of, agency. Secondly, we review research into early theory of mind capacities to attribute mental states to others. Thirdly, we review research into early capacities to respond to cues of non-verbal communicative interactions, which are likely to play a crucial role in the process of cultural transmis- sion. In the penultimate section, we review research into early sensitivity to in-group/ out-group distinctions, including research about social essentialism in young children. Finally, we turn to the study of early moral cognition.