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Friday, February 4, 2022

Latent motives guide structure learning during adaptive social choice

van Baar, J.M., Nassar, M.R., Deng, W. et al.
Nat Hum Behav (2021). 


Predicting the behaviour of others is an essential part of social cognition. Despite its ubiquity, social prediction poses a poorly understood generalization problem: we cannot assume that others will repeat past behaviour in new settings or that their future actions are entirely unrelated to the past. We demonstrate that humans solve this challenge using a structure learning mechanism that uncovers other people’s latent, unobservable motives, such as greed and risk aversion. In four studies, participants (N = 501) predicted other players’ decisions across four economic games, each with different social tensions (for example, Prisoner’s Dilemma and Stag Hunt). Participants achieved accurate social prediction by learning the stable motivational structure underlying a player’s changing actions across games. This motive-based abstraction enabled participants to attend to information diagnostic of the player’s next move and disregard irrelevant contextual cues. Participants who successfully learned another’s motives were more strategic in a subsequent competitive interaction with that player in entirely new contexts, reflecting that social structure learning supports adaptive social behaviour.

Significance statement

A hallmark of human cognition is being able to predict the behavior of others. How do we achieve social prediction given that we routinely encounter others in a dizzying array of social situations? We find people achieve accurate social prediction by inferring another’s hidden motives—motives that do not necessarily have a one-to-one correspondence with observable behaviors. Participants were able to infer another’s motives using a structure learning mechanism that enabled generalization.  Individuals used what they learned about others in one setting to predict their actions in an entirely new setting. This cognitive process can explain a wealth of social behaviors, ranging from strategic economic decisions to stereotyping and racial bias.

From the Discussion

How do people construct and apply abstracted mental models of others’ motives? Our data suggest that attention plays a key role in guiding this process. Attention is a fundamental cognitive mechanism as it affords optimal access to behaviorally relevant information with limited processing capacity. Our findings show how attention supports social prediction. In the Social Prediction Game, as in everyday social interactions, there were multiple cues that could be predictive of another’s behavior, from the player payoffs S and T to the order of the games or even the initials of the player. Structure learning allowed participants to disregard superficial cues and attend to information relevant to the players’ latent motives. Although this process facilitated accurate social prediction with limited effort if the inferred motives were correct, incorrect structure learning caused counterproductive attention on irrelevant information. For example, participants who did not consider risk aversion failed to shift their attention to the sucker’s payoff (S) during the Pessimist block and instead kept looking at the temptation to defect (T), thereby missing out on information predictive of the player’s choices. This suggests that what we can learn about other people is limited by our expectations.