Project Detail
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Is there a hierarchy of social inference? Intentionality, mind, and morality  

Whenever people encounter another person's behavior, they have to process a bewildering amount of information: What is the person's gender, age, role, social group membership? Is the behavior intentional? What is the person's goal, what is she thinking, what is he feeling? Is this behavior good or bad? And does it reveal the person's personality? Answers to these questions demand social inferences: conjectures about the other person's intentional behavior, thoughts and feelings, and morality. Previous research has provided some insight into each of these inferences, but they were always studied in separation. In real life, different types of social inferences occur simultaneously within the human perceiver and must also be studied simultaneously in research. This project's first objective is therefore to investigate the relationships among these multiple inferences. Is there a hierarchy of social inferences -- a priority by which people infer intentionality, mind, and morality? (For example, do people assign blame to somebody even before they infer the person's specific goal?) How frequently and how fast are these inferences made, and do some inferences compete with each other or speed each other up? (For example, are inferences about goals faster than those about personality and do inferences of intentionality speed up inferences about blame?) The project's second objective is to investigate which information contained in an observed behavior triggers the various inferences -- that is, exactly what do people look at when they infer a behavior's intentionality, the actor's emotion, or the blameworthiness of the action? To conduct this research, the PI developed a theoretical model and experimental paradigm for the simultaneous examination of multiple social inferences. Unlike previous research that used written sentences to elicit social inferences, the present project presents videotaped human behaviors as dynamic experimental stimuli. Thus, while perceivers make social inferences as they normally would in real life, the researcher uses computerized presentation and measurement to assess the frequency and exact timing of these inferences. Moreover, with a fine-grained tracking of the perceiver's eye movements while watching the behaviors, the researcher can capture the specific information on which these inferences are based. By providing a clearer understanding of the fundamental social capacities involved in inferring intentionality, mental states, and morality, this project will inform legal processes, models of autism (where these capacities have been shown to be deficient), relationship counseling, and cross-cultural communication. Illuminating the exact processes by which people interpret each other's behavior will help meet a key challenge in contemporary society: to improve communication and avoid misunderstandings in personal, business, and political interactions. Furthermore, the theoretical and methodological innovations in this proposal will provide scientists with valuable new tools for the study of human social cognition. Finally, because many of the proposed studies can be conducted on a portable laptop computer, they permit recruitment of diverse community members who would normally not enter the psychologist's laboratory. The proposed research will be integrated into training and teaching of undergraduate and graduate students, benefit from national and international collaborations, and will be disseminated in scientific publications and communities across multiple disciplines. Project Status


Funder National Science Foundation
Fiscal Year Funding $67,910.67
Current Award Period 2009-2012
Project Number 937307
Principal Investigator Malle, Bertram
Received ARRA Funding? No
Strategic Plan Question Question 2: How Can I Understand What Is Happening? (Biology)
Subcategory Cognitive Studies
Strategic Plan Objective 2O. Not specific to Question 2 objectives
Federal or Private? Federal
Institution Brown University
State/Country Rhode Island
Web Link 1 Is there a hierarchy of social inference? Intentionality, mind, and morality (External web link)
Web Link 2 Is there a hierarchy of social inference? Intentionality, mind, and morality (External web link)
Web Link 3 No URL available.
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