Reciprocity and social cognition 

Reciprocity and social cognition

23–25 March 2015

Venue: Berlin School of Mind and Brain, Luisenstraße 56, Festsaal, 10117 Berlin

Conference poster (download)

Symposium Committee: Isabel Dziobek, Stephen Butterfill, Richard Moore, Olle Blomberg, Anna Strasser


Reciprocity and social cognition

Reciprocity is a common feature of much social cognition. For example, when two people attend to the same object simultaneously they can do so merely in parallel or jointly; only the latter of which involves reciprocity. However, traditional accounts of the foundations of social cognition have largely ignored the existence of reciprocity and treated social cognition as a process that rests on observation rather than genuine interaction (e.g., Dennett, 1982; Davidson, 1994; Stich & Nicholls, 2003; Goldman 2006; Rizzolatti & Sinigaglia, 2008). Notable exceptions highlight reciprocity as a key feature of social cognition and joint action (Tomasello et al., 2005; Bratman, 2014). However, the precise nature of this concept has not always been clear, and debates across adjacent fields have remained somewhat disconnected.
In this three-day workshop we will try to clarify the concept of reciprocity and to explore for the first time how the notion of reciprocity can be used to illuminate debates in adjacent fields of cognitive science. In the process we hope to provide answers to a number of important questions such as:

  • What kinds of reciprocity are involved in different forms of communication and joint action?
  • How does reciprocity interact with knowledge, learning, and cognitive development?
  • What can we learn from studying social interaction in non-human primates and humans with psychiatric disorders that involve dysfunctional social interaction?
  • What role does reciprocity have in social interaction impairments?
  • How can reciprocity be studied with neuroscientific methods?

This symposium will be organized around six distinct but closely related sessions, each devoted to the role of reciprocity in social cognition:

(1) Intentional communication
(2) Neuroscience of dialogue
(3) Socio-cognitive disorders
(4) Social exchange: insights from computational neuroscience
(5) Perspective-taking
(6) Joint action


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Monday, 23 March 2015






KEY LECTURE: Richard Moran



Chair: Richard Moore



Matthews / Moore

(I) Intentional communication










KEY LECTURE: Julia Fischer



Tuesday, 24 March 2015



Chair: Anna Kuhlen




(II) Neuroscience of dialog







Chair: Anna Strasser



Crone / Strasser

(III) Disorders







Chair: Isabel Dziobek




(IV) Social exchange: insights from computational  neuroscience 








KEY LECTURE: Natalie Sebanz



Wednesday, 25 March 2015



Chair: Steve Butterfill




(V) Perspective-taking







Chair: Olle Blomberg




(VI) Joint action




Blomberg / Butterfill



14:00 - 15:00


Abstracts of all sessions

(1) Intentional communication

Reciprocity in intentional communication: addressing and acknowledging communicative acts
Recent work on intentional communication has devoted much time to the way in which communicative acts are addressed to an intended recipient. The nature of this address, which is typically performed using ostensive cues, has been supposed to be significant both because it marks a uniquely Gricean feature of human communication (Tomasello, 2008), which distinguishes it from non-human communication, and because some argue that it has been ritualised into an adaptive mechanism for human social learning (Gergely & Csibra, 2006).
Against this consensus, some authors (Moore, 2014; submitted) have sought to show that there is nothing uniquely human about the ways in which communicative acts are addressed to interlocutors; and indeed that such acts of addressing may be a functional pre-requisite of successful communication. However, a rarely noted but correlated feature of communicative acts may be unique to humans: the act of acknowledging that one has been addressed. In this act, which is suppressed in the act of ignoring, one acknowledges and makes oneself culpable for responding to the speaker’s communicative intention. If one acknowledges that one has been addressed by another, and that one has understood this address, then one’s interlocutor may feel entitled to be aggrieved by any subsequent failure to respond appropriately.
In this workshop, we aim to better understand this act of acknowledging communicative intent and its role in the performance of certain illocutionary acts, and to discuss its possible development in ontogeny and phylogeny. We will also discuss the possible ways in which the act of acknowledgement transforms the act of communication from the act of an individual into a species of joint action.

(2) Neuroscience of dialogue

In this session we will consider dialogue as a form of joint activity and the most basic form of language use. One central motivation for investigating language in the context of dialogue is the assumption that language processing is adapted to and shaped by the conversational context. Many aspects of utterances produced in dialog can only be understood when taking into account the context in which they are used (for discussion see e.g., Tanenhaus & Brown-Schmidt, 2007). This includes the actions and characteristics of the participating individuals (for a discussion see e.g., Brennan, Galati, & Kuhlen, 2010). Speaking and listening in a realistic communicative context is likely to engage a special kind of neuro-cognitive processes: Behavioral and neuroscientific studies suggest profound differences in cognitive and neural processing in response to differences in social context (e.g., Brown-Schmidt, 2009; Lockridge & Brennan, 2002; Kourtis, Sebanz & Knoblich, 2013; Kuhlen & Brennan, 2013; Pickering & Garrod, 2004; Rueschemeyer, Gardner & Stoner, 2014; Schilbach et al., 2013). In order to gain a complete understanding of the neural mechanisms underlying language processing in dialog it will be important to investigate language in experimental settings in which actual inter-personal communication takes place.

(3) Socio-cognitive disorders

What can we learn from unsuccessful social interaction?
Many psychopathological disorders lead to general problems in social interaction. Patients seek medical assistance not only because their environment cannot cope with their behaviour, but also because they cannot get on with their environment themselves.
In this session paradigmatic examples of malfunctioning social interaction will be analysed to shed light on the question of when and in what social breakdowns occur. This might, in turn, provide us with a better understanding of certain requirements of social understanding.
A paradigmatic case of a socio-cognitive disorder is autism. However, deficits in social interaction can be shown in many psychiatric illnesses. In such cases  of malfunctioning, it may not be only cognitive deficits (like the absence of a 'Theory of Mind') that lead to those problems. Empirical findings suggest that more basic processes like eye movement behaviour and emotional processes also play a foundational role in successful reciprocal interaction.
In a successful social interaction the protagonists understand each other as a social agents and they feel understood as social agents by the other. In this session we want to examine how the ability to take the other one as a social partner and to experience a reciprocal interaction can be undermined.

Discussion points
- In what processes does our recognition of others as social agents consist? And what is missing in cases where this recognition is absent?
- Are the processes involved in attributing mental states to others mainly highly reflective, or do ‘low-level’ processes also play a role?
- What kinds or ‘low-level’ processes play a role in enabling the smooth functioning of our socio-cognitive interactions, and what roles do these processes play?

(4) Social exchange through the lens of computational neuroscience

Reciprocity requires individuals to represent others’ complex minds, specifically their unfolding beliefs and preferences over the course of dynamic social interaction.  The neuronal underpinnings during social exchange with another mind are, however, only beginning to be understood. Through computational approaches these processes can be quantified in order to specify how sophisticated mental operations are implemented in the brain, and how these neural computations are linked to social behavior. Most notably, modeling hierarchical levels of Theory of Mind during repeated economic exchange and strategic cooperation games has advanced our understanding of how (impaired) social cognition relates to (dysfunctional) reciprocity in healthy individuals and psychiatric
conditions such as borderline personality disorder and autism (e.g. Xiang, Ray, Lohrenz, Dayan, & Montague, 2012; Yoshida, Dziobek, Heekeren, Friston, & Dolan, 2010).
In this session, we aim to discuss the opportunities offered by a computational approach in studying the neurocognitive mechanisms of social reciprocity.

(5) Perspective-taking

The ability to adopt or understand another's perspective---whether spatial, visual or cognitive perspective---is fundamental for many kinds of mindreading and an ingredient in a diverse range of behaviours including navigation, communication, deception and joint action. Theoretically we can distinguish an ability to switch perspectives from an ability to confront perspectives (Perner et al 2002; Moll & Meltzoff 2011). There is also evidence that, when asked explicitly at least, children are able to switch perspectives some time before they can confront perspectives (Moll & Tomasello 2011; Moll et al 2013). By contrast, 18-month-olds appear able to confront perspectives on some measures involving spontaneous responses (e.g. Knudsen & Liszkowski 2012). The distinction between switching and confronting perspectives raises many questions that have hardly been considered. Does reciprocal interaction foster either or both kinds of perspective taking? Does the distinction between switching and confronting perspectives shed light on discrepancies in performance on false belief tasks using different measures (e.g. Low et al 2014)?  When if at all is confronting perspectives automatic?

(6) Joint action

In the study of action, common coding theories of perception and action and the discovery of mirror neurons suggest that action perception and action planning draw on shared representational resources (see e.g. Prinz 1997; Hommel et al. 2001; Hurley 2008). Traditionally, the dominant view of the human cognitive system has been quite different, with perception and action as input and output systems kept apart by cognition proper. This traditional view suggest a certain picture of joint action: Two people who intentionally do something together, such as carry a table for example, must coordinate their individual actions by way of cognition proper in the form of coordinated planning. Several agents’ actions could the count as a joint action in virtue of being the outcome of, for example, a plan that each is committed to “that they carry the table” (Bratman 2014). However, if perception and action share representational resources, then joint actions could be coordinated more directly via perception-action links, unmediated by high-level cognition and planning (Knoblich and Sebanz 2006; 2008). Recent research in cognitive psychology suggest that this is indeed the case (Sebanz, Knoblich, and Prinz 2003; Tsai, Sebanz, and Knoblich 2011; Vesper et al. 2010; Knoblich, Butterfill, and Sebanz 2011). Perhaps capacities for such low-level joint action coordination ought to be expected if specifically human cognition has been deeply shaped for the purpose of cooperation and joint action (as argued by e.g. Sterelny 2012; Tomasello 2014).
In the joint action session, we will consider what joint action might be in the light of recent empirical and theoretical work in cognitive psychology and neuroscience, as well as look at some potential philosophical implications of this work.


•    In what way can common coding of perception and action facilitate or obstruct coordination of joint action?
•    What specific socio-cognitive challenges do agents who act together face?
•    Are there ways of predicting, understanding or influencing the actions of others that are only available in the context of joint action (or more readily available than in non-joint action contexts)?
•    Does engagement in joint action rely on dedicated cognitive processes? Or does it rather mainly rely on the recruitment of cognitive processes that are really ‘for’ individual cognition, perception and action?
•    Do results from psychological research on joint action have implications for social ontology (for the question of whether an action proper can really be joint for example)?
•    Philosophers have tended to think of (intentional) joint actions as outcomes appropriately caused by ‘shared intentions’—is this is helpful way in which to frame theorising and empirical research about joint action?

Hong Yu Wong (speaker), Elisabeth Pacherie (respondent), Olle Blomberg (discussant), Steve Butterfill (discussant)


Bratman, Michael. 2014. Shared Agency: A Planning Theory of Acting Together. Oxford University Press.
Hommel, Bernhard, Jochen Müsseler, Gisa Aschersleben, and Wolfgang Prinz. 2001. “The Theory of Event Coding (TEC): A Framework for Perception and Action Planning.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24 (05): 849–78.
Hurley, Susan. 2008. “The Shared Circuits Model (SCM): How Control, Mirroring, and Simulation Can Enable Imitation, Deliberation, and Mindreading.” Edited by Julian Kiverstein and Andy Clark. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 31 (1): 1–+.
Knoblich, G, S Butterfill, and N Sebanz. 2011. “Psychological Research on Joint Action: Theory and Data”, February, 1–44.
Knoblich, G, and N Sebanz. 2006. “The Social Nature of Perception and Action.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 15 (3): 99.
Knoblich, Günther, and Natalie Sebanz. 2008. “Evolving Intentions for Social Interaction: From Entrainment to Joint Action.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 363 (1499): 2021–31.
Prinz, Wolfgang. 1997. “Perception and Action Planning.” European Journal of Cognitive Psychology 9 (2): 129–54.
Sebanz, Natalie, Günther Knoblich, and Wolfgang Prinz. 2003. “Representing Others’ Actions: Just like One’s Own?” Cognition 88 (3): B11–B21.
Sterelny, Kim. 2012. The Evolved Apprentice. MIT Press.
Tomasello, Michael. 2014. A Natural History of Human Thinking. Harvard University Press.
Tsai, JC, N Sebanz, and G Knoblich. 2011. “The GROOP Effect: Groups Mimic Group Actions.” Cognition 118 (1): 135–40.
Vesper, Cordula, Stephen A. Butterfill, Günther Knoblich, and Natalie Sebanz. 2010. “A Minimal Architecture for Joint Action”, February, 1–27.

This page last updated on: 15 December 2015