Warneken, F., & Rosati, A. G. (2012). Early social cognition: How psychological mechanism can inform models of decision-making. In: Evolving the Mechanisms of Decision Making: Toward a Darwinian Decision Theory, Strüngmann Forum Reports, vol. 11 (P. Hammerstein and J. R. Stevens, eds.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 288-289.
Many approaches to understanding social decision-making use formalized models that account for costs and benefits to predict how individuals should choose. While these types of models are appropriate for describing social behavior at the ultimate level—accounting for the fitness consequences of different patterns of behavior—they do not necessarily reflect the proximate mechanisms used by decision-makers. We argue that a focus on psychological mechanisms is essential for understanding the causes of decision making in a social context. We particularly focus on the behavior of human children to elucidate the psychological capacities that are foundational for the developmental emergence of social decision-making in humans. In particular, we present evidence that across a wide range of contexts, young children appear to focus on the underlying psychological states of potential social partners in cooperative contexts. This suggests that many types of social decisions may be driven by intention-attribution, not explicit utility calculations. We propose that a comprehensive theory of social decision-making has to address both questions about ultimate function, as well as integrate empirical studies of the psychological instantiation of these processes. Developmental approaches are particularly informative, as they elucidate the origins of decision-making, as well as the factors that shape them into their mature form seen in adults.