How Executive Function Shapes Social Cognition

Executive function encompasses a set of high-level mental processes that help us manage, plan, and execute tasks. Executive functions are one of the major cognitive skills that powerfully shape our abilities in daily life. In addition to our abilities to plan and problem-solve, they influence our social interactions and understanding. This article explores the relationship between executive function and social cognition and how exercising one of these skills can help us exercise the other.

Understanding Executive Function

Executive function skills include a number of complex abilities. In a way, they involve using our other cognitive functions in order to make more complex decisions. For example, executive functions include the abilities to problem-solve, plan, think before acting, inhibit behaviors that aren’t appropriate, and make decisions. We use skills like memory, attention, and processing speed while utilizing our executive functions. So, executive functions are intricate and require the use of multiple cognitive skills.

Social cognition is also a complex and layered cognitive function. So, how does executive function play into it?

The Social Brain

Social cognition refers to the cognitive processes involved in thinking about ourselves and relating to others. It refers to how we process and store information about others, how social interactions affect our ideas and behaviors, and how we present ourselves to the world.

Executive function plays an important role in social cognition. For example, social interaction often requires problem-solving and inhibiting undesirable behavior.

Problem-solving may be necessary when speaking with someone we disagree with. Instead of being overwhelmed by frustration and acting rashly, we can use our executive function skills to recognize that the person we’re speaking to is also a human being. We can sympathize to an extent by recognizing that everyone has a different background that shapes their personality, even if we truly dislike and disagree with the individual. Using executive functions skills, we can choose to continue the conversation in a calm and rational manner, or to leave the conversation rather than doing something that may have bad consequences, such as yelling or starting a fight.

Inhibiting undesirable behavior is an executive function skill that is important in many social situations. For example, if you’re taking a class and you’re interested in the topic you’re learning about, there are socially mindful ways to interact with the class and continue learning more. Whereas interrupting the teacher or talking over classmates might feel appropriate due to your level of interest and excitement, but it doesn’t take into account the others around you and how they may be feeling. This level of empathy for others, and adjusting one’s behavior to fit the situation, require strong executive functioning and social cognition skills.

Here are some more ways that executive functioning impacts our social cognition:

Executive Function’s Impact on Social Skills

1. Working Memory and Social Information Processing

Working memory is a foundational skill for executive functioning. A strong working memory allows us to retain social information, such as the names of individuals in a meeting and the current topic of conversation. The foundational skill of memory allows us a basis of retaining information. Then, we can go further and use our executive function and social cognition skills, such as to make plans in a conversation or problem-solve a friend’s dilemma with them.

2. Cognitive Flexibility and Perspective-Taking

One of the key elements of executive functioning is cognitive flexibility. This allows us to consider multiple perspectives and options when making plans and decisions. It also impacts our social cognition. 

When interacting with others, it’s vital to be able to “put yourself in their shoes,” meaning to try to understand their perspective. This comes into play in many social interactions. For example, when we’re in a long store checkout line, and we’re frustrated that it’s taking so long, we can utilize our cognitive flexibility to comprehend that the store clerk is probably going as fast as they can and they are probably frustrated too. By taking this perspective, we can prevent ourselves from being rude to the clerk and behaving in a way that isn’t socially mindful or helpful for anyone.

Working on this skill can make someone a better friend and family member, and a more effective member of their community. This is because they’ll be more likely to understand that their own perspective is limited. We don’t necessarily understand where someone is coming from or what they are going through, but through cognitive flexibility and perspective-taking, we can imagine that they are most likely doing the best they can with the information they have.

3. Inhibitory Control and Social Regulation

Executive functions allow us to control our inhibitions and behavior. This includes social cognitive skills such as regulating emotions and behaving in a way that considers others. Social interaction can be fun and connective, but it can sometimes lead to misunderstandings and difficult emotions. In these instances, it’s important to be able to regulate your emotions and make sound decisions about your actions before you act.

Impairment to Executive Functions and Social Challenges

Impairments to executive function skills may occur for a wide range of reasons, and this can affect social cognition skills. Conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, ADHD, and neurodevelopmental disorders can lead to weakened executive function skills, which can affect social cognition and behavior. 

Interventions such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Cognitive Remediation may provide the strategies needed to rebuild these skills. With a focus on bridging these skills into real life situations, interventions such as group therapy and Action-Based Cognitive Remediation may have positive effects.

Quick Facts

Summarize the intricate relationship between executive function and social cognition. Emphasize the importance of nurturing executive skills for enriched social experiences and improved overall well-being.

  • Executive functions are complex cognitive processes that help us plan, make decisions, inhibit undesirable behaviors, and think before acting. 
  • These functions play a strong role in our social cognition, such as allowing us to recall social information, see things from another perspective, and control emotions and behavior.
  • Impairment to executive functions and social cognition can happen for a variety of reasons, and can be treated with cognitive therapy.
  • Practicing the skills in group therapy can be beneficial.
Aly Castle

Aly is HappyNeuron Pro’s Content Specialist. She is passionate about mental health and well-being and loves utilizing her design background to share important cognitive information clearly and understandably.

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