The organization of social knowledge is tuned for prediction

Mark A. Thornton, Diana I. Tamir

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

3 Scopus citations


Social life requires foresight. To coordinate their actions with allies, or compete successfully with rivals, people must anticipate the thoughts, feelings, and actions of others. Here we review mounting evidence that the mind organizes social knowledge to facilitate social prediction. In the first part of this chapter, we discuss research which uses fMRI, behavior, and text analysis to reveal the conceptual "maps" people use to understand three key domains of social cognition: actions, mental states, and traits. Each domain is defined by a parsimonious set of psychological dimensions. These maps allow people to easily understand social stimuli based on their coordinates on these dimensions. In the second part of this chapter, we describe research that shows how people use these maps to make social predictions: proximity between points on the map predicts the perceived likelihood of transitioning between those points. Moreover, these proximity-based predictions accurately track real-world social dynamics. Thus, by encoding social stimuli on appropriate dimensions, the brain can make efficient, automatic predictions. Together these findings suggest that the way people think about others is fundamentally shaped by the goal of anticipating the social future.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Neural Basis of Mentalizing
Number of pages15
ISBN (Electronic)9783030518905
ISBN (Print)9783030518899
StatePublished - May 11 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Psychology
  • General Medicine
  • General Neuroscience


  • Action
  • Functional magnetic resonance imaging
  • Mental states
  • Person perception
  • Predictive coding
  • Representational similarity analysis
  • Statistical learning


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