A growing body of research suggests that social contextual factors such as desires and goals, affective states and stereotypes can shape early perceptual processes. We suggest that a generative Bayesian approach towards perception provides a powerful theoretical framework to accommodate how such high-level social factors can influence low-level perceptual processes in their earliest stages. We review experimental findings that show how social factors shape the perception and evaluation of people, behaviour, and socially relevant objects or information. Subsequently, we summarize the generative view of perception within the ‘Bayesian brain’, and show how such a framework can account for the pervasive effects of top-down social knowledge on social cognition. Finally, we sketch the theoretical and experimental implications of social predictive perception, indicating new directions for research on the effects and neurocognitive underpinnings of social cognition.