Social cognition broadly refers to the processing of social information in the brain that underlies abilities such as the detection of others' emotions and responding appropriately to these emotions. Social cognitive skills are critical for successful communication and, consequently, mental health and wellbeing. Disturbances of social cognition are early and salient features of many neuropsychiatric, neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative disorders, and often occur after acute brain injury. Its assessment in the clinic is, therefore, of paramount importance. Indeed, the most recent edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM-5) introduced social cognition as one of six core components of neurocognitive function, alongside memory and executive control. Failures of social cognition most often present as poor theory of mind, reduced affective empathy, impaired social perception or abnormal social behaviour. Standard neuropsychological assessments lack the precision and sensitivity needed to adequately inform treatment of these failures. In this Review, we present appropriate methods of assessment for each of the four domains, using an example disorder to illustrate the value of these approaches. We discuss the clinical applications of testing for social cognitive function, and finally suggest a five-step algorithm for the evaluation and treatment of impairments, providing quantitative evidence to guide the selection of social cognitive measures in clinical practice.