The neuroscience of people-watching: how the human brain makes sense of other people’s encounters

Susanne Quadflieg, Kami Koldewyn

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article (Academic Journal)peer-review

30 Citations (Scopus)
524 Downloads (Pure)


Neuroscientific investigations interested in questions of person perception and impression formation traditionally asked their participants to observe and evaluate isolated individuals. In recent years, however, there has been a surge of studies presenting third-party encounters between two (or more) individuals as stimuli. Due to this subtle methodological change, the brain’s capacity to understand other people’s interactions and relationships from limited visual information – also known as people-watching – has become a distinct topic of inquiry. Though initial evidence indicates this capacity relies on several well-known networks of the social brain (including the person perception network, the action observation network, and the mentalizing network), a comprehensive framework of people-watching must overcome three major challenges. First, it must develop a taxonomy of judgments people habitually make when witnessing the encounters of others. Second, it must clarify which visual cues give rise to these encounter-based judgments. Third, it must elucidate how and why several brain networks work together to accomplish these judgments. To advance all three lines of research, the current article summarizes what is currently known, but also what remains to be studied about the neuroscience of people-watching.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)166-182
Number of pages17
JournalAnnals of the New York Academy of Sciences
Issue number1
Early online date12 Apr 2017
Publication statusPublished - May 2017


  • person perception
  • social cognition
  • social neuroscience
  • social interaction
  • third-person perspective


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