Being able to infer the thoughts, feelings and intentions of those around us is indispensable in order to function in a social world. Despite growing interest in social cognition and its neural underpinnings, the factors that contribute to successful mental state attribution remain unclear. Current knowledge is limited because the most widely used tasks suffer from two main constraints: (i) They fail to capture individual variability due to ceiling effects and (ii) they use highly simplistic, often artificial stimuli inapt to mirror real-world socio-cognitive demands. In the present study, we address these problems by employing complex depictions of naturalistic social interactions that vary in both valence (positive vs negative) and ambiguity (high vs low). Thirty-eight healthy participants (20 female) made mental state judgments while brain responses were obtained using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Accuracy varied based on valence and ambiguity conditions and women were more accurate than men with highly ambiguous social stimuli. Activity of the orbitofrontal cortex predicted performance in the high ambiguity condition. The results shed light on subtle differences in mentalizing abilities and associated neural activity.
Neural correlates of naturalistic social cognition: brain-behavior relationships in healthy adults. Deuse L, Rademacher LM, Winkler L, Schultz RT, Gründer G, Lammertz SE. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2016 Nov;11(11):1741-1751. Epub 2016 Aug 3.