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Published June 2015 | Published + Accepted Version + Supplemental Material
Journal Article Open

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


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.

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 https://osf.io/59cbe. Group-level statistical contrast images can be downloaded as a NeuroVault collection: http://neurovault.org/collections/297/. The complete Open Practices Disclosure for this article can be found at http://pss.sagepub.com/content/by/supplemental-data. This article has received a badge for Open Materials. More information about the Open Practices badges can be found at https://osf.io/tvyxz/wiki/view/ and http://pss.sagepub.com/content/25/1/3.full.

Attached Files

Supplemental Material - DS_10.11770956797615569002_OpenPracticesDisclosure.pdf

Supplemental Material - DS_10.11770956797615569002_SupplementalMaterials.pdf

Published - Psychological_Science-2015-Spunt-724-36.pdf

Accepted Version - nihms652805.pdf


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Additional details

August 20, 2023
August 20, 2023