Brain activation during social cognition predicts everyday perspective-taking: A combined fMRI and ecological momentary assessment study of the social brain

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Identifying distinct neural networks underlying social affect (empathy, compassion) and social cognition (Theory of Mind) has advanced our understanding of social interactions. However, little is known about the relation of activation in these networks to psychological experience in daily life. This study (N = 122) examined the ecological validity of neural activation patterns induced by a laboratory paradigm of social affect and cognition with respect to social interactions in everyday life. We used the EmpaToM task, a naturalistic video-based paradigm for the assessment of empathy, compassion, and Theory of Mind, and combined it with a subsequent 14-day ecological momentary assessment protocol on social interactions. Everyday social affect was predicted by social affect experienced during the EmpaToM task, but not by related neural activation in regions of interest from the social affect network. In contrast, everyday social cognition was predicted by neural activation differences in the medial prefrontal cortex - a region of interest from the social cognition network - but not by social cognition performance in the EmpaToM task. The relationship between medial prefrontal cortex activation and everyday social cognition was stronger for spontaneous rather than deliberate perspective taking during the EmpaToM task, pointing to a distinction between propensity and capacity in social cognition. Finally, this neural indicator of Theory of Mind explained variance in everyday social cognition to a similar extent as an established self-report scale. Taken together, this study provides evidence for the ecological validity of lab-based social affect and cognition paradigms when considering relevant moderating factors.


Original languageEnglish
Article number117624
Number of pages13
Publication statusPublished - 15 Feb 2021

External IDs

Scopus 85098129533
PubMed 33346132
PubMedCentral PMC7611322
ORCID /0000-0002-9375-2222/work/142255881



  • Ecological momentary assessment, Ecological validity, Empathy, Mentalizing, Theory of mind, fMRI