As members of a social species, we humans are exquisitely attuned to each other. Many of our everyday behaviors—what we eat, how we dress, what kind of music we like, and how we think about current events—are shaped by the people around us. Even when we are not directly mingling with other people, we are often thinking about them, mak-ing plans involving them, and maybe even fantasizing about them—not to mention obeying (or breaking) their laws, using their products, reading their books, watching their television shows, and speaking their languages. In other words, most of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are shaped by the social world—often without us even noticing.
We don’t respond to all these influences in a mechanical or reflexive fashion, how-ever. Instead, our responses to the social world depend to an enormous extent on how we interpret others’ behaviors and how others interpret ours. This is evident in the fact that if Mary smiles at you, your reaction will be quite different if you think she was flirt-ing as opposed to merely being polite. If the salesman recommends the Macintosh rather than the Dell, your purchase may depend on whether you believe the salesman is sincere or, for that matter, knowledgeable. In these cases and most others, how we respond to other people depends on how we think about and interpret their actions. This crucial process of interpreting and thinking about the social world is referred to as social cognition.