Social Cognition

social cognition lab

The Social Cognition Lab is interested in the development and evolution of social intelligence using both human and non-human primate models. Our work specifically focuses on a cornerstone of human intelligence: cultural learning. 

Through collaborations with local organizations such as the National Building Museum and Children’s National Medical Center as well as various international partners, we seek to identify the various cognitive, neural and behavioral skills that underlie different forms of social learning. Our ultimate goal is to better understand which of these features are distinctive in our species and how they make cultural learning possible. 

Social Cognition Lab Site


Research Interests

While social learning is widespread in the animal kingdom, cultural learning is rare. Our ability to rapidly, efficiently, and accurately copy others’ knowledge and responses across many different domains varying in abstractness underlies many of our species’ distinctive qualities including speech and writing as well as the use of complex tools. Our research with preschool age human children seeks to experimentally identifying the basic psychological processes (e.g., executive functions mediating the attention, retention and updating of information) mediating different forms of social learning such as emulation (e.g., learning from another’s error) and imitation (e.g., faithfully copying a demonstration). Because children go from being poor to exceptional social learners, these studies highlight the skills necessary to become a cultural learner. Comparative studies with rhesus monkeys and orangutans using the same experimental approach allow us to identify which of these skills are likely to be unique to our species as well as explain why human and non-human social learning is so different. 

Select Publications

Renner E, Patterson EM, Subiaul, F (2020). Specialization in the vicarious learning of novel arbitrary sequences in humans but not orangutans. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B. 375: 20190442

Subiaul F, Stanton MA. Intuitive invention by summative imitation in children and adults. Cognition. 2020 Sep;202:104320. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2020.104320. Epub 2020 Jul 4. PMID: 32634652.

Renner E, White JP, Hamilton AFC, Subiaul F. (2018). Neural responses when learning spatial and object sequencing tasks via imitation. PLoS One. 2018 Aug 3;13(8):e0201619. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0201619. eCollection.

Subiaul, F. (2016). What’s special about human imitation? A comparison with enculturated apes. Behavioral Sciences. 6 (16), doi:10.3390/bs6030013

Subiaul, F., Patterson, E., Renner, E., Schilder, B., Barr, R. (2014). Becoming a High Fidelity—Super—Imitator: The role of social and asocial learning in imitation development. Developmental Science. Nov;18(6):1025-35. doi: 10.1111/desc.12276. Epub 2014 Dec 28

For more publications visit Dr. Francys Subiaul's Google Scholar page.

Lab Researchers

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Zachary Attermann

MA student, GW

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Adrian Varallyay

MA student, Columbia University

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Nathalia Beller

Undergraduate student, GW