Social cognition and people skills:

A parent's evidence-based guide

© 2006-2011 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Looking for science-based information on baby social cognition?

Preschool social skills ? Or Social skill activities?

Or tips for teaching empathy?

In these pages, you will find articles about the science of the social brain and social skills in children.

These offerings include:

Social cognition in babies, including these reviews of the social world of newborns, what babies know about social dominance, and the ways that infant-directed speech helps babies learn about our emotional intentions.

Mind-minded parenting, an evidence-based discussion of how treating babies and children as people with minds may help kids develop strong social skills

Preschool social skills, an evidence-based guide to fostering social skills in young children

Preschool social stress, a report on research the way that day care and preschool attendance can contribute cause stress and behavior problems...and what parents can do about it

Empathy, including tips for teaching empathy and articles about the neurological basis for empathy and the importance of actively teaching empathy and empathic concern to our kids. I've also written about the entirely unfounded claims that "teen brains lack empathy."

Helpful, “prosocial” behavior, and the perils of offering kids material rewards for being kind

The hot-cold empathy gap: How people make mistakes when they try to imagine another person’s perspective, and parents can do to help kids overcome

Bullying, including articles on the psychology of "pure" bullies and the moral reasoning that kids use to justify their aggressive behavior

Stereotype threat: How your children’s beliefs about other people can hinder his performance in school and elsewhere

I’ll keep adding more articles over time. Meanwhile, here’s an overview of some of the more practical discoveries about social cognition in children.

What is social cognition?

I’ve never really liked the term “social cognition.” It sounds too much like “groupthink,” which is about conformity and a failure to reason critically.

But social cognition is really just a label for research about the cognitive processes that give rise to social phenomena.

Around the world, there are laboratories and research groups devoted to the emotional, developmental, psychological, cross-cultural neurological, and evolutionary underpinnings of social thinking and behavior.

And there are people who study social phenomena through field work. Anthropologists like Marc Flinn, who studies the effects of family relationships on child development, health, and the stress response. Or Craig Stanford, who seeks to understand the origins of human sociality by studying meat-eating and meat-sharing in chimpanzees.

The developmental origins of social intelligence: Baby social skills?

Like most primates, humans are very social. And we seem to be especially well-equipped for coping with social situations.

Immediately after birth, newborns show a preference for looking at face-like stimuli. They recognize their mothers’ voices (which they’ve heard from the womb) and they learn very quickly to identify their mothers’ faces.

In fact, despite their sensory shortcomings (which include blurry vision and relatively poor hearing), newborns express all sorts of social preferences. They prefer to listen to “infant directed speech,” that emotionally exaggerated, sing-song style of speech that adults often adopt when addressing babies. And they prefer people who make direct eye contact with them. For more information, see this article on social cognition in newborns.

So even before we’ve had a chance to enculturate our children, they are already showing a special interest in the social world.

Indeed, some aspects of social cognition may be “wired in.” Newborns are more likely to cry when they hear other newborns (but not necessarily older babies) crying.

Perhaps this reflects the work of mirror neurons, those nerve cells that fire both when we perform an action and when we perceive that same action being performed by another person.

Empathy: The bedrock of social cognition and moral reasoning

Mirror neurons might explain why at least one rudimentary aspect of empathy—the ability to share the pain of another person—seems to show up in brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Jean Decety and his colleagues have presented kids with photographs of people in pain. When the kids examined these pictures, they experienced brain activity in regions associated with first-hand experiences of pain. For details, see this article on empathy and the brain.

This brain scan research suggests that people experience “second hand pain” without making a conscious effort. But empathy is more than the sharing of feelings, and it seems that kids can benefit from parenting that teaches the whole package of skills and social beliefs that underlie full-blown empathy.

Do’s and don’ts: How to foster the development of social cognition

So what can parents do to promote good social skills--and smart social reasoning--in children?

What to do

Research suggests we should start early by treating young children--even young babies--as individuals with thoughts, goals, feelings, and intentions. This approach is called mind-minded parenting, and studies have linked it with more secure attachment relationships and the development of strong empathic and perspective-taking skills.

There are also activities that might help kids develop social skills, like these activities for teaching kids about facial expressions as well as these research-inspired activities for teaching kids to listen, negotiate, cooperate, and "read minds."

What not to do

There are pitfalls to avoid, too, like the overuse of praise and the practice of bribing kids with tangible rewards.

Babies as young as 12 months may try to comfort other people in distress (Eisenberg and Fabes 1998), and experiments have established that 14-month old toddlers will spontaneously offer help to strangers (Warneken and Tomasello 2007).

But we can mess this up. When we promise kids rewards for being helpful, we actually undermine their motivation for helping. For details, see this article on raising helpful kids.


References: Social cognition

Eisenberg N and Fabes 1998. Prosocial development. In W. Damon (ed): Handbook of child psychology, volume 3: Social, emotional, and personality development. 5th edition. New York: Wiley.

Warneken, F. & Tomasello, M. (2007). Helping and cooperation at 14 months of age. Infancy 11(3): 271–294.

Content last modified 11/11

image of friendly boys © Parnell