Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Communication and Social Cognition

  • Rachel H. MesserEmail author
  • Guadalupe D. S. Gonzalez
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_3606-1




the act of a message being sent by a communicator to a recipient; usually refers to aspects of spoken and nonverbal (e.g., facial expressions, gestures) language that enable message delivery and reception but may also refer to written language

Social cognition

mental processes that enable thinking about the self and others; key in navigating social situations and expectations


Humans have evolved to communicate with one another through necessity and desire. After all, humans are social beings. In order to be successful group members, early humans communicated with one another within their social groups to coordinate efforts that promoted survival, such as hunting, gathering, and protection strategies. Communication was also used in early humans to warn of the approach of threats, such as predators. Later, written language developed throughout the world as a way to record historical events, important societal information, stories, and religious material.

Social cognitive skills such as perspective taking (i.e., theory of mind), empathy, pattern detection and recognition, interpretation of nonverbal and paralinguistic (e.g., tone of voice) signals, and others enable communication among individuals. One must be able to infer the intention of communication from others while also tracking in real time both the verbal and nonverbal signals being produced by the individual(s). Trust or mistrust for individuals may be garnered through communication. Indeed, such skills enable safe interaction among individuals, thus promoting survival. This, in addition to survival promoted within groups through shared language use, emphasizes the importance of the interconnectedness of communication and social cognition.

Aspects of Communication

Communication occurs when a message is conveyed through verbal, nonverbal, or other means from a message sender to a message recipient (Berlo 1960). Individuals communicating successfully with one another share a common ground regarding the topics of conversation, such that they are both relatively familiar with what is being discussed and are using a language or mix of languages that allow comprehension of information being exchanged (Clark 1996). Verbal communication contains linguistic and paralinguistic aspects, such as word choice and tone of voice, respectively (Prutting and Kirchner 1987). Another aspect of verbal communication is speech sound delivery. An additional paralinguistic characteristic may be an individual’s typical volume of voice. Nonverbal aspects are the other major contributors to communication. These include gestures, facial expression, posture, and other body language. Indeed, some communication is carried out by solely using nonverbal signals (e.g., sign languages).

Verbal and nonverbal communication may be congruent or incongruent; that is, what a message sender is saying verbally may or may not match what their body language is portraying. For example, someone delivering a verbal apology may also wring their hands or show open hands or other common bodily signs of being regretful or sorry. The message recipient may perceive the message sender as genuinely apologetic, since these are nonverbal signals that one typically expresses when they are apologizing and asking for forgiveness. Conversely, the verbal apology may be paired with crossed arms and little eye contact, or even with aggressive body language, which would be incongruent with the expected sincerity of an apology. The results of incongruent verbal and nonverbal signals can vary (Morioka et al. 2016); the recipient may interpret the incongruence as insincerity (even if the verbal apology is present) due to the mismatch in what the person is saying and what their body language is portraying. Conversely, they may be put on alert as a result of the aggressive body language or gestures (effectively delivering the opposite of an intended apology).

Varying estimates have been postulated regarding how much information about a message is gleaned through verbal aspects compared to nonverbal and paralinguistic aspects. For example, Mehrabian and associates’ (1967) historically well-cited work reflects a 55%/38%/7% breakdown of nonverbal, paralinguistic, and verbal aspects’ contributions to communication, respectively. However, more recent research emphasizes various situational demands that may influence how a message is perceived (although nonverbal communication still tends to stick out as the major contributor). Thus, the manner in which a message is delivered is as important as the message itself if one wishes to communicate effectively.

The way humans communicate and receive messages can signal prosocial or antisocial intentions to other individuals (Marzi et al. 2014). Consequently, communication can be viewed as a language-based way to test the safety or threat level of a person. An obvious example of a threat would entail an individual shouting and gesturing aggressively toward another person, which could engage the fight-or-flight response of the message recipient even if the verbal message was nonthreatening. In fact, individuals identify “suspicious” nonverbal signals from others relatively quickly and easily, such as shifty eyes or nervous hand gestures. Research from the deception literature has demonstrated reliable effects of certain eye movements and microexpressions as signs of lying and deception (Matsumoto and Hwang 2018). Humans are able to quickly detect and process these types of signals, as they provide valuable information that may help determine whether the communicator is trustworthy, dangerous, etc.

Aspects of Social Cognition

Social cognition refers to the ability to think about oneself and others (Frith 2008). In particular, social cognition allows humans to function in social groups and societies through a shared understanding of social behavior and functioning. Much of what social cognition allows for is unconscious; that is, we automatically process many of the social cues that are presented to us in everyday life. For example, we automatically process facial expressions and the emotions they may portray. In many ways, this is how social cognition relates to human functioning and communication.

In the example of an individual attempting to deceive a conversation partner, nonverbal communication comprehension is seamlessly interwoven with social cognitive skills. Indeed, we create first impressions of people we are communicating with in a very short amount of time, and we tend to be quite accurate in our first judgments about individuals (Ambady and Rosenthal 1993). Evolutionarily, this has been a survival skill when discerning intentions of others.

Social cognition is also involved in thinking about the self. Around 18 months of age, children begin to develop a sense of self-awareness and realize that they are an independent and different being from their caregivers and siblings (Brownell et al. 2007). They develop theory of mind by age 4–5, which allows them to know that not everyone possesses the same knowledge they do (Baron-Cohen 2001). Theory of mind also allows children to understand the emotional states and intentions of others, which are valuable skills for navigating social situations both early in life and throughout the lifespan.

While seemingly a skill relevant mainly to the self, theory of mind enables many aspects of communication. For example, knowledge of the self when communicating enables understanding of turn-taking and equal contribution with a conversation partner (Sacks et al. 1974). It also enables one to consider the feelings of another person when delivering difficult or sad news before communicating with them, allowing insight that can soften language. Here, empathy is also a central ability to communicative functioning. Therefore, knowledge of the self enables an individual to operate properly within the social realm.

Evolutionary Explanations for Social Communication

There has been much research into several specific effects of evolved social cognitive communication abilities in humans. The Chameleon Effect, for example, is housed under the skill set of nonconscious mimicry (Chartrand and Bargh 1999; Lakin et al. 2003). Nonconscious mimicry is a phenomenon in which an individual begins to mirror the verbal and nonverbal actions of another person, which creates positive feelings between the communicators. Indeed, the automatic processing of the mimicry on the part of the other individual creates social bonding in that the individuals seem more similar to one another, signaling safety and belonging. The Chameleon Effect in particular is the human ability to utilize this skill set in social situations of many types in order to “blend in” with the nonverbal communication styles around oneself.

Another especially important instance of how social cognition and communication have evolved is the human ability to use context and inference to deduce meaning from a message (Lee and Harris 2013). In English, for example, homophones (i.e., words that sound the same but have different meanings and are spelled differently) such as “bear/bare” and “ate/eight” exist. In order to know which word is intended during spoken communication, one must utilize perspective taking and theory of mind to think about the context of the message that the communicator is attempting to create and then discern which word is being referenced. If a message about a camping trip is being communicated, the tendency is to interpret the homophone as the most relevant and likely word “bear.” This inferential ability is essential for gaining meaning from messages.

Another more organic example of how social cognition and communication have evolved is through the discovery of mirror systems in the brain. These systems are groups of neural networks that activate whether an individual performs an action or sees another person perform the action (Dickerson et al. 2017). For example, cooperation is an essential function in group maintenance and survival (Cosmides and Tooby 1992), and mirror systems allow for a platform of shared understanding when performing cooperative tasks and working toward a common goal. Moreover, mirror systems contribute to uniting factors such as empathy.

A final example of how social cognition and communication work together in an evolutionary sense is through the passing down of information, stories, and traditions with cultural themes (Kashima 2000, 2008). Historical information sharing and storytelling work to continue and strengthen cultural ties, enabling group membership to increase in complexity as time passes. New generations of group members are told stories that may increase cultural understanding and dedication, thus increasing feelings of group belongingness.


The complexities of social cognition and communication enable some of the most essential functions of human bonding, group membership, and social belongingness. Neural network formation beginning early in life works bidirectionally in conjunction with automatic social information processing such as facial expressions and gestures, which continue to serve as the bases for social signal detection. Ultimately, efficient social cognitive skills facilitate communication, which can support such important factors as attraction, relationships, social belongingness, and group membership, thus increasing the likelihood of flourishing.



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Copyright information

© This is a U.S. Government work and not under copyright protection in the U.S.; foreign copyright protection may apply 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyBethel CollegeNorth NewtonUSA
  2. 2.Psychology DepartmentUniversity of Texas at AustinAustinUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Catherine Salmon
    • 1
  1. 1.University of RedlandsRedlandsUSA