How automatic are human social skills?
This January in Biology and Philosophy, philosopher Mitch Parsell questions the view that some parts of social cognition, like face-perception or gaze-following, are independent mechanisms working independently from other cognitive processes – what philosophers call "informational encapsulation". I cut-and-pasted a few excerpts.
This is a face with a pair of eyes. Your eyes are sensitive to the label attached to this picture; your attentional response would have been different if it had read "this is a car" (Kingstone et al. 2004).
"Our success as a species depends on efﬁcient, real-time processing of social information. Recognizing a conspeciﬁc as a threat or an opportunity needs to be done fast, before the threat has been visited upon us or the opportunity has passed…
For defenders of SCT efﬁciency entails modularity. Specialized, modular systems will, due to basic computational considerations, deliver results more efﬁciently than general-purpose, Quinean systems. Thus for any signiﬁcant evolutionary skill, selective pressures are likely to result in the development of a specialized, modular system for that problem domain. But signiﬁcant evolutionary problems also demand reliable solutions. There is simply no point coming to fast conclusions if they are mostly wrong."
So evolutionary pressures on social cognition are ambiguous: it should be encapsulated, but not too much. This seems to imply at least that the most basic building-blocks of social cognition, such as directing our eyes towards social stimuli, would be encapsulated.
"Humans are sensitive to gaze from birth. The development of gaze abilities follows a strict development path. Only speciﬁc social stimuli fully engage the eye-gaze system(s). The neural real estate that supports these skills shows preferential responses to social stimulus. Further, we share many of these capacities and abilities with other primates. If such low-level basic skills turn out to be unencapsulated there seems little hope for higher-level, socially signiﬁcant abilities being encapsulated."
The authors then review some interesting pieces of evidence against the encapsulation of gaze-direction, for example:
"The sensitivity of the gazed-cuing response to top-down modulation is demonstrated by experiments using ambiguous ﬁgures. Ristic and Kingstone (2005) showed subjects a stimulus that could be perceived as representing either a face (with eyes) or a car (with wheels). Automatic attentional reorientation only occurred when the stimulus was referred to as a face possessing eyes. Thus reﬂexive attentional reorientation is sensitive to top-down inﬂuence"
Other beautiful examples from the study of face-processing are mentioned in the paper. I am not really convinced that visual attention to social stimuli is a perfect place to look for low-level, encapsulated social cognition mechanisms. Attention is a special faculty: it has to do with allocating processing time, and prioritizing certain stimuli over others. If attention as a faculty exists at all, then it cannot fail to consider several kinds of distinct cognitive processes, and compare them. To some extent, this seems incompatible with encapsulation – so I am not sure that challenging modularists with visual attention is such a feat. Still, Mitch Parsell's paper is really well argued, documented, and exciting.