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Folk Explanations of Behavior: A Specialized Use of a Domain-General Mechanism

Spunt, Robert P. and Adolphs, Ralph (2015) Folk Explanations of Behavior: A Specialized Use of a Domain-General Mechanism. Psychological Science, 26 (6). pp. 724-736. ISSN 0956-7976. PMCID PMC5536834.

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People typically explain others’ behaviors by attributing them to the beliefs and motives of an unobservable mind. Although such attributional inferences are critical for understanding the social world, it is unclear whether they rely on processes distinct from those used to understand the nonsocial world. In the present study, we used functional MRI to identify brain regions associated with making attributions about social and nonsocial situations. Attributions in both domains activated a common set of brain regions, and individual differences in the domain-specific recruitment of one of these regions—the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC)—correlated with attributional accuracy in each domain. Overall, however, the DMPFC showed greater activation for attributions about social than about nonsocial situations, and this selective response to the social domain was greatest in participants who reported the highest levels of social expertise. We conclude that folk explanations of behavior are an expert use of a domain-general cognitive ability.

Item Type:Article
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URLURL TypeDescription Material CentralArticle
Adolphs, Ralph0000-0002-8053-9692
Additional Information:© 2015 The Author(s). Received August 20, 2014. Accepted January 2, 2015. Published online before print April 24, 2015. We thank Mike Tyszka and the Caltech Brain Imaging Center for help with neuroimaging and Elliot Berkman, Meghan Meyer, Ajay Satpute, and Damian Stanley for helpful feedback. This research was supported by grants from the National Institute of Mental Health to R. Adolphs (R01MH080721; P50MH094258). R. P. Spunt is supported by a postdoctoral fellowship sponsored by the Della Martin Foundation. Additional funding was provided by the Caltech Conte Center. Author Contributions: R. P. Spunt and R. Adolphs designed the study and created the analytical strategy, R. P. Spunt collected and analyzed the data, and both authors wrote the manuscript. Open Practices: All materials have been made publicly available via Open Science Framework and can be accessed at Group-level statistical contrast images can be downloaded as a NeuroVault collection: The complete Open Practices Disclosure for this article can be found at This article has received a badge for Open Materials. More information about the Open Practices badges can be found at and
Funding AgencyGrant Number
Della Martin FoundationUNSPECIFIED
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)UNSPECIFIED
Subject Keywords:social cognition, neuroimaging, semantic memory, theory of mind, causality, open materials
Issue or Number:6
PubMed Central ID:PMC5536834
Record Number:CaltechAUTHORS:20150504-090121068
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Official Citation:Robert P. Spunt and Ralph Adolphs Folk Explanations of Behavior: A Specialized Use of a Domain-General Mechanism Psychological Science June 2015 26: 724-736, first published on April 24, 2015 doi:10.1177/0956797615569002
Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:57181
Deposited By: Tony Diaz
Deposited On:04 May 2015 17:13
Last Modified:23 Jan 2020 19:33

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