Social Cognition in Schizophrenia
Amy E. Pinkham, PhD
Social cognition is often defined as the cognitive processes that allow people to perceive, interpret, and respond to the intentions, dispositions, and behaviors of others. This definition highlights a link between social cognition and behavior that may be crucial for understanding the social impairments that are among the defining features of schizophrenia.
The 4 Domains of Social Cognition
Current consensus among experts in the field identifies 4 core domains of social cognition: (1) emotion processing, (2) social perception, (3) theory of mind/mental state attribution (ToM), and (4) attributional style/bias.1 Emotion processing is broadly defined as perceiving and using emotional information and encompasses both simple and complex behavior. Social perception is defined as decoding and interpreting social cues in others. ToM refers to the ability to represent human mental states and/or make inferences about others’ intentions and beliefs. Finally, attributional style pertains to the ways in which individuals explain positive and negative social events in their lives.1
Social Cognition and Schizophrenia
Social cognition represents a significant area of impairment for individuals with schizophrenia that spans all of the domains detailed above. Specifically, patients show large deficits in emotion recognition, social cue perception, and ToM, and when explaining events, individuals with schizophrenia tend to blame others, rather than situational factors, for negative outcomes.2-5 These difficulties are evident early in the course of the disorder, including the prodromal phase, and are stable over time.6-11 Further, although there is clearly overlap between social cognition and neurocognitive abilities such as memory, attention, and executive function, social cognition appears to be largely independent from neurocognition.4 Most importantly, social cognition impacts real-world outcomes.12 Treatment programs targeted toward improving social cognitive abilities have also resulted in improved outcomes including social adjustment, social functioning, social relationships, and social skills.1
The Social Cognitive Neural Network
Social cognitive abilities are linked to specific neural circuits that show functional abnormalities in individuals with schizophrenia.13,14 Patients tend to show abnormal activation of a network including fusiform gyrus, superior temporal sulcus, amygdala, ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, and medial prefrontal cortex when processing social stimuli (AV 1). Investigations of these neural networks in patients have also demonstrated that brain activation is significantly and positively correlated with social functioning, which suggests that abnormal activation in social cognitive networks may serve as a mechanism for social dysfunction in schizophrenia.15-17 Findings such as these highlight the potential importance of treating social cognitive impairments and pursuing remediation strategies that will normalize these neural processes.
Despite the promise of social cognition for contributing to our understanding of social impairment in schizophrenia, there are many challenges in this area moving forward, and among them is the issue of measurement. There is disagreement about which tasks best measure social cognition, and many existing measures show poor psychometric properties. A recent project, the Social Cognition Psychometric Evaluation (SCOPE) study, aims to address these problems by providing the field with a well-validated battery of social cognitive tasks that can be used in treatment outcome trials.1
In summary, social cognition is an exciting area of research that offers promise for better understanding the social dysfunction seen in schizophrenia. Research is honing in on the potential mechanisms of social cognitive impairment in patients, and with improved measurement, there is promise for optimizing behavioral and pharmacologic interventions and remediation strategies.
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- Pinkham AE. In: Roberts DL, Penn DL, eds. Social Cognition in Schizophrenia: From Evidence to Treatment. New York, NY: Oxford University Press; 2013:263–284.
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