Social perception in children with intellectual disabilities: the interpretation of benign and hostile intentions

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BackgroundA key aspect of social perception is the interpretation of others' intentions. Children with intellectual disabilities (IDs) have difficulty interpreting benign intentions when a negative event occurs. From a cognitive processing perspective, interpreting benign intentions can be challenging because it requires integration of conflicting information, as the social cues accompanying the negative event convey non-hostile intentions. The present study examined how children with ID process conflicting social information in a more diverse set of situational circumstances than was investigated previously, including situations involving hostile intentions. We hypothesised that when conflicting information in a social situation consists of mixed social cues that convey insincere benign intentions (a type of hostile intentions), children with ID would have difficulty arriving at an accurate interpretation, just as they do when a negative event is accompanied by cues that convey benign intentions. We also hypothesised that when a negative event is accompanied by cues that convey benign intentions, the presence of a highly salient negative event would pose added interpretation difficulty for these children.MethodsParticipants (58 children with ID and 189 children without ID in grades 2–6) viewed 13 videotaped vignettes. In each vignette, social cues that accompanied a negative event provided information about the intentions of the character that caused the event. After presenting each vignette, we asked the child questions designed to assess aspects of social perception, including his/her interpretation of intentions. Vignettes represented three types of situations that pose conflicting information: (1) a conflict between a negative event and social cues, which conveyed benign intentions (five items); (2) the presence of conflicting social cues that conveyed insincere benign intentions (four items); and (3) additional items designed to examine the effect of the salience of negative event and cues on accurate interpretation of benign intentions (four items). Teachers completed rating scales of social behaviour, enabling us to examine whether the ability to interpret intentions when conflicting information is present is related to children's social behaviour.ResultsChildren with ID had lower interpretation accuracy than children without ID for all three social situations that presented conflicting information. Children with ID appeared to have particular difficulty interpreting benign intentions when a negative event (but not the social cue) was made salient. For children with ID, interpretation accuracy and teacher-rated social behaviour were related.ConclusionsResults demonstrated that the presence of conflicting information poses cognitive processing challenges in a variety of social situations, making it difficult for children with ID to arrive at accurate interpretations. Children with ID were less likely than children without ID to interpret intentions accurately, not just when the social cues conveyed benign intentions, but also when mixed social cues conveyed hostile intentions. In addition, when social cues accompanying a negative event convey benign intentions, the relative salience of the negative event and the cues can affect interpretation accuracy for children with ID. Discussion focuses on implications for understanding the cognitive component of the social domain of adaptive behaviour, for explaining gullibility in children with ID and for instructional practices.

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