Leor M Hackel, Julian A Wills, Jay J Van Bavel
Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience
Cooperation is necessary for solving numerous social issues, including climate change, effective governance and economic stability. Value-based decision models contend that prosocial tendencies and social context shape people’s preferences for cooperative or selfish behavior. Using functional neuroimaging and computational modeling, we tested these predictions by comparing activity in brain regions previously linked to valuation and executive function during decision-making—the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), respectively. Participants played Public Goods Games with students from fictitious universities, where social norms were selfish or cooperative. Prosocial participants showed greater vmPFC activity when cooperating and dlPFC-vmPFC connectivity when acting selfishly, whereas selfish participants displayed the opposite pattern. Norm-sensitive participants showed greater dlPFC-vmPFC connectivity when defying group norms. Modeling expectations of cooperation was associated with activity near the right temporoparietal junction. Consistent with value-based models, this suggests that prosocial tendencies and contextual norms flexibly determine whether people prefer cooperation or defection.
From the Discussion section
The current research further indicates that norms shape cooperation. Participants who were most attentive to norms aligned their behavior with norms and showed greater right dlPFC-vmPFC connectivity when deviating from norms, whereas the least attentive participants showed the reverse pattern. Curiously, we found no clear evidence that decisions to conform were more valued than decisions to deviate. This conflicts with work suggesting social norms boost the value of norm compliance (Nook and Zaki, 2015). Instead, our findings suggest that norm compliance can also stem from increased functional connectivity between vmPFC and dlPFC.
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