Rebecca M. Jones, Leah H. Somerville, Jian Li, Erika J. Ruberry, Victoria Libby, Gary Glover, Henning U. Voss, Douglas J. Ballon, and B. J. Casey
J. Neurosci. 2011;31 13039-13045
Social learning is critical for engaging in complex interactions with other individuals. Learning from positive social exchanges, such as acceptance from peers, may be similar to basic reinforcement learning. We formally test this hypothesis by developing a novel paradigm that is based on work in nonhuman primates and human imaging studies of reinforcement learning. The probability of receiving positive social reinforcement from three distinct peers was parametrically manipulated while brain activity was recorded in healthy adults using event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging. Over the course of the experiment, participants responded more quickly to faces of peers who provided more frequent positive social reinforcement, and rated them as more likeable. Modeling trial-by-trial learning showed ventral striatum and orbital frontal cortex activity correlated positively with forming expectations about receiving social reinforcement. Rostral anterior cingulate cortex activity tracked positively with modulations of expected value of the cues (peers). Together, the findings across three levels of analysis—social preferences, response latencies, and modeling neural responses—are consistent with reinforcement learning theory and nonhuman primate electrophysiological studies of reward. This work highlights the fundamental influence of acceptance by one's peers in altering subsequent behavior.