In response to intense demands of social life, human beings have evolved a number of capacities that allow them to make sense of other agents—to interpret, explain, and predict their behavior, share their experiences, and coordinate interactions with them. These capacities include simple processes such as gaze following or mimicry; complex processes such as imaginative simulation and mental state inference; and abstract concepts such as intentionality and belief. These capacities are typically subsumed under the label social cognition (Malle, 2015-Tree).
Explanations of intentional actions
Against the background of our theory of behavior explanation (Malle, 1999, 2004, 2011), we have recently explored how people use explanations to engage in impression management and we currently examine how visual perspective influences explanations and how people's explanations of robot behaviors reveal their assumptions about robot agency and mind.
Mental state inference
In the past we explored the problem of mental state inferences more generally (Malle, 2005; Hodges & Malle, 2005; Malle, 2008). More recently (Malle & Holbrook, 2012) we developed a methodology to study the relationships among the many different kinds of mental states inferences (e.g., of intentionality, goals, beliefs). Currently we are conducting studies on the way in which script or norm violations trigger mental state inferences. In addition, we have just completed a series of studies that explore when people spontaneously take another person's visual perspective.
Malle, B. F., & Holbrook, J. (2012). Is there a hierarchy of social inferences? The likelihood and speed of inferring intentionality, mind, and personality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 661–684.
Malle, B. F. (2011a). Attribution theories: How people make sense of behavior. In Chadee, D. (Ed.), Theories in social psychology (pp. 72-95). Wiley-Blackwell.
Malle, B. F. (2011b). Time to give up the dogmas of attribution: An alternative theory of behavior explanation. In J. M. Olson and M. P. Zanna, Advances of Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 44, pp. 297-352). Burlington: Academic Press.
Malle, B. F. (2008b). The fundamental tools, and possibly universals, of social cognition. In R. Sorrentino and S. Yamaguchi (Eds.), Handbook of motivation and cognition across cultures (pp. 267-296). New York: Elsevier/Academic Press.