Arts and Minds: Clarifying the relationship between social cognition and the arts
by Rose Turner
Social cognition refers to the range of cognitive processes that operate in response to social phenomena; it includes constructs like empathy, theory of mind and emotion recognition.
Social cognition is of interest to researchers in developmental and clinical fields where deficits in skills such as interpreting facial cues can serve as diagnostic markers, and to those working with typical populations where they link to prosocial behaviour and the maintenance of positive interpersonal relationships (e.g. Castano, 2012; Johnson, 2012).
Social cognition has become increasingly important to researchers interested in the psychological impact of the arts. Studies have shown that social cognitive skills positively relate to various forms of arts-engagement, including reading and viewing stories (Mar et al., 2006; Mar, Tackett & Moore, 2010) and acting (Goldstein, Wu & Winner, 2009). Furthermore, it has been suggested that engaging with fiction may provide “grist for the mills” (Zunshine, 2006, p. 16) of theory of mind, a facet of social cognition that refers to the ability attribute mental states to oneself and others. Recently, the positive causal effects of reading literary (award-winning or canonical) fiction on theory of mind have received particular attention (e.g. Kidd & Castano, 2013; Pino & Mazza, 2016; see also Panero et al., 2016).
Despite a growing interest in how neurologically typical adults may develop their social cognitive skills via arts-engagement, the multidimensionality of social cognition has led to inconsistent definitions of its core constructs. This has resulted in some disparity between the dimensions that researchers claim to measure, and the tools they use for measurement. For example, the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test (Eyes Test; Baron-Cohen et al., 2001) is widely regarded as a reliable measure of theory of mind. Participants are asked to attribute mental state terms to photographs of the eye regions of faces, and attributions are scored for accuracy. Participants with low scores are considered to have lower theory of mind ability that those with high scores. The Eyes Test has provided the cornerstone for several papers reporting theory of mind deficits in groups with Autism spectrum disorder, and has constituted the central measure in research showing positive effects of engaging with fiction on theory of mind ability (e.g. Black & Barnes, 2013; Kidd & Castano, 2013) However, Oakley et al. (2016) point out that the Eyes Test is in fact a measure of emotion recognition rather than theory of mind per se. This, they argue, is an important distinction, because studies have shown that the abilities can dissociate: people may have trouble decoding facial expressions, but can attribute mental states accurately using alternative cues.
To complicate matters further, empathy is regularly used to refer to the ability to attribute cognitive and affective mental states, overlapping with the theory of mind construct. In a useful review of the concept, Cuff et al. (2014) defined empathy as an affective response similar to the emotional state of another agent, accompanied by recognition that the emotion is coherent with the agent’s circumstances and not one’s own. The experiential aspect therefore distinguishes empathy from theory of mind, and also from sympathy (or “empathic concern”, e.g. Davis, 1983) where emotions are experienced for rather than as another agent. Given the growing interest in the social cognitive benefits of the arts (and fiction in particular), a move towards greater consistency in defining social cognitive constructs would be of great benefit to the field.
A final challenge for research into social cognition and the arts is that many traditional social cognition tasks are prone to ceiling effects with healthy adults (e.g. false-belief tasks and basic emotion recognition tests). Consequently, more complex, multidimensional tasks have emerged, designed to probe variation in high-level abilities. Such approaches have included narrative-based film and reading tasks (e.g. Dodell-Feder et al., 2013; Dziobek et al., 2006), which can incorporate a fuller range of cues, entailing lower-level decoding and higher level mentalizing and empathic processes, more reflective of real-world social phenomena than traditional measures.
Two issues arise from these more complex approaches, (1) multidimensional tasks can enable compensatory strategies which conceal specific deficits, (2) task performance may be affected by individual differences in narrative-engagement; therefore, multidimensional tasks may be most usefully applied alongside traditional singular approaches (Turner & Felisberti, 2017). For example, the Eyes Test could be used in conjunction with a story-based test of theory of mind to facilitate a comprehensive perspective of individuals’ abilities to interpret facial cues, dialogue and contextual information in attributing mind-states. Importantly, this approach would highlight variation in social cognitive skills both within and between participants. In turn, this could help to clarify the specific and unique effects of different modes of engagement with the arts.
Arts practices are constantly evolving, and it seems plausible that different modalities may entail different social cognitive processes. To develop a more comprehensive understanding of the psychological impact of the arts, the field should work towards a more cohesive view of social cognition, its components, and the tools we use for measurement.
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