A domain-general dynamic framework for social perception
Initial social perceptions are often thought to reflect direct “read outs” of facial features. Instead, we outline a perspective whereby initial perceptions emerge from an automatic yet gradual process of negotiation between the perceptual cues inherent to a person (e.g., facial cues) and top-down social cognitive processes harbored within perceivers. This perspective argues that perceivers’ social-conceptual knowledge in particular can have a fundamental structuring role in perceptions, and thus how we think about social groups, emotions, or personality traits helps determine how we visually perceive them in other people. Integrative evidence from real-time behavioral paradigms (e.g., mouse-tracking), multivariate fMRI, and computational modeling will be discussed. Together, this work shows that the way we use facial cues to categorize other people into social groups (e.g., gender, race), perceive their emotion (e.g., anger), or infer their personality (e.g., trustworthiness) are all fundamentally shaped by prior social-conceptual knowledge and stereotypical assumptions. We find that these top-down impacts on initial perceptions are driven by the interplay of higher-order prefrontal regions involved in top-down predictions and lower-level fusiform regions involved in face processing. We argue that the perception of social categories, emotions, and traits from faces can all be conceived as resulting from an integrated system relying on domain-general cognitive properties. In this system, both visual and social cognitive processes are in a close exchange, and initial social perceptions emerge in part out of the structure of social-conceptual knowledge.