By Mina Cikara & Jay J. Van Bavel
Perspectives on Psychological Science
May 2014 vol. 9 no. 3 245-274
We review emerging research on the psychological and biological factors that underlie social group formation, cooperation, and conflict in humans. Our aim is to integrate the intergroup neuroscience literature with classic theories of group processes and intergroup relations in an effort to move beyond merely describing the effects of specific social out-groups on the brain and behavior. Instead, we emphasize the underlying psychological processes that govern intergroup interactions more generally: forming and updating our representations of “us” and “them” via social identification and functional relations between groups. This approach highlights the dynamic nature of social identity and the context-dependent nature of intergroup relations. We argue that this theoretical integration can help reconcile seemingly discrepant findings in the literature, provide organizational principles for understanding the core elements of intergroup dynamics, and highlight several exciting directions for future research at the interface of intergroup relations and neuroscience.
People experience pleasure when they have the ability to punish or watch the punishment of a disliked or competitive other. When a partner behaved unfairly (i.e., defected) in a game, the dorsal striatum—a region implicated in action selection on the basis of reward value—was relatively more active when people administered punishments that reduced defectors’ payoffs, as compared with punishments that did not (De Quervain et al., 2004). Moreover, subjects with stronger activations in the dorsal striatum were willing to incur greater costs in order to punish. Other work has found that seeing the pain of a cooperative confederate activated a network of brain regions associated with firsthand experience of pain; however, seeing the pain of a competitive confederate activated ventral striatum. Further, ventral striatum activation correlated with an expressed desire for revenge (Singer et al., 2006). Thus, in interpersonal contexts, competition (even among strangers, for low-stakes outcomes) fundamentally changes people’s social preferences and corresponding neural responses.
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