Studying social modulation of cognitive processes holds much promise for illuminating how, where, when and why social factors influence how we perceive and act in the world, as well as providing insight into the underlying cognitive mechanisms. This is no small objective; it reflects an ambitious programme of research. At present, based on the modal theoretical and methodological approach, we suggest that several challenges exist to achieving such lofty aims. These challenges span an overreliance on a simplistic dichotomy between “top-down” and “bottom-up” modulation, a lack of specificity about mechanisms that renders clear interpretations difficult, and theories that largely test against null hypotheses. We suggest that these challenges present several opportunities for new research and we encourage the field to abandon simplistic dichotomies and connect much more with existing research programmes such as semantics, memory and attention, which have all built diverse research platforms over many decades and that can help shape how social modulation is conceptualised and studied from a cognitive and brain perspective. We also outline ways that stronger theoretical positions can be taken, which avoid comparing to null hypotheses, and endorse methodological reform through fully embracing proposals from the open science movement and “credibility revolution”. We feel that by taking these opportunities, the field will have a better chance of reaching its potential to build a cumulative science of social modulation that can inform understanding of basic cognitive and brain systems, as well as real-life social interactions and clinical conditions typified by the Autism Spectrum.