Social cognition or social class and culture? On the interpretation of differences in social cognitive performance
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Description: The ability to understand others’ mental states carries profound consequences for our mental and physical health. Difficulty with mental state understanding (MSU) may predispose individuals towards social isolation, loneliness, and psychiatric illness, making efforts at validly and reliably assessing MSU of utmost importance. However, inspection of some of the more widely used tasks to assess MSU (e.g., the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Task; RMET) reveals potential assessment issues, namely, an ostensible reliance upon a participant’s vocabulary/intelligence and the use of culturally-biased stimuli, among other issues. Here, using data from a sample of over 40,000 international, English-speaking participants, we evaluate the impact of demographic and sociocultural factors on several social cognitive tasks and one non-social cognitive task in order to assess whether the effect of participant characteristics is robust and reliable across social cognitive abilities or a function of task-specific characteristics, such as the use of uncommon vocabulary and/or ethnically homogenous stimuli. We find a pattern of results suggesting that social cognitive tasks may be biased against the less educated and those participants whose race/ethnicity differs from the task’s stimuli; an effect potentiated in the RMET. Together, these data suggest that certain MSU tasks may be tapping social class and culture as much as it is social cognition.