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Pickens, J. (2006). Perception of Social Invariants. PHILICA.COM Observation number 28.

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Perception of Social Invariants

Jeffrey Pickensconfirmed user (Social Sciences, Saint Thomas University)

Published in psycho.philica.com

It is suggested that humans are adept perceivers of “social invariants” (behavior patterns that specify key aspects of individuals, dyads and groups). We excel as perceivers of gesture, body language, biological motion, facial expressions, and vocal tone. It is hypothesized that invariant patterns of behavior, just like the rhythm or tempo of a physical event, are perceived in social settings. Under this model, social characteristics are directly specified through detection of behavior invariants, and do not require higher level cognitive or linguistic decision making. Individual level invariants let us perceive if someone is alone or with others, retreating or approaching, speaking/gesturing to us, or acting friendly. Group invariants allow perception of people as dyads or larger groups, elements of group dynamics, and the motion and actions of subgroups. It is proposed that such discriminations are accomplished at a direct perceptual level with minimal cognitive-linguistic processing, because humans have evolved to perceive social invariants at a basic neural level. Most humans are adept perceivers of social invariants, and this likely emerges early in development. This model of perceiving social invariants is useful for explaining social perceptions currently described in terms of cognitive processes, and to avoid imprecise terms such as body language, social cues, vocal tone, group dynamics or non-verbal behavior. Future research may test adult perceptions of classes of social invariants, and the emergence of children’s ability to perceive social invariants. This model may help focus the field of social perception away from vaguely defined terms, away from overly cognitive-linguistic analyses, and instead to focus research on identifying specific invariant data humans directly abstract from the social environment.

Observation circumstances
This theoretical observation applies an ecological approach (used mostly to describe perception of physical objects) to the field of Social Psychology. This offers a direct perceptual alternative to cognitive-linguistic analyses that currently dominate the field of Social Cognition.

Fiske, S.T. & Taylor, S.E. (1991). Social Cognition (2nd edition). New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.

Gibson, James J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin

Reed, E.S. (1996). Encountering the world: Toward an ecological psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Information about this Observation
Peer-review ratings (from 1 review, where a score of 100 represents the ‘average’ level):
Originality = 100.00, importance = 100.00, overall quality = 100.00
This Observation was published on 2nd November, 2006 at 20:44:40 and has been viewed 7845 times.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.
The full citation for this Observation is:
Pickens, J. (2006). Perception of Social Invariants. PHILICA.COM Observation number 28.

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1 Peer review [reviewer #187confirmed user] added 11th November, 2006 at 09:44:25

The idea of identifying invariant social behavioural cues is an interesting avenue. Quite a lot of work has already been done on simple social cues, such as eye-contact, on which several papers have been written identifying EEG correlates (starting with Tony Gale’s work in the 1970s), and on facial expression reading (Ekman & Friesen), but as I understand the opening of this work, the idea is to take the approach further and look for higher-level combination of such cues with social meaning.

However, I think that even within the constraints of a short Observation, we could have done with more detail — what sort of common factor does the author expect to see underpinning these invariants, assuming there is a single common factor (and if there isn’t, what ties together the various areas mentioned)? What level does he think we might best explore these invariants at — neurological? behavioural? How are we to describe and conceive of these invariants (some form of clear description would be necessary to achieve the goal of moving away from cognitive-linguistic analysis). The early emergence of invariant identification seems like a fair assumption, but it would have been nice to see some speculation on the relative contributions of innate and learnt components.

I’m intrigued by the idea that these social signals “do not require higher level cognitive or linguistic decision making” — if so, does the author see any role for such higher-level processes, e.g., can I choose to inhibit my exhibiting any or all of these cues in my behaviour, or can I influence my ability to perceive them in others (if the answer to either is yes, you may be able to make a lot of money selling training courses to businesspeople!)?

Originality: 4, Importance: 4, Overall quality: 4

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