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J Neurosci. 2013 Jan 16;33(3):1099-108a. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1642-12.2013.

Computational substrates of norms and their violations during social exchange.

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Department of Neuroscience, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas 77030, USA.


Social norms in humans constrain individual behaviors to establish shared expectations within a social group. Previous work has probed social norm violations and the feelings that such violations engender; however, a computational rendering of the underlying neural and emotional responses has been lacking. We probed norm violations using a two-party, repeated fairness game (ultimatum game) where proposers offer a split of a monetary resource to a responder who either accepts or rejects the offer. Using a norm-training paradigm where subject groups are preadapted to either high or low offers, we demonstrate that unpredictable shifts in expected offers creates a difference in rejection rates exhibited by the two responder groups for otherwise identical offers. We constructed an ideal observer model that identified neural correlates of norm prediction errors in the ventral striatum and anterior insula, regions that also showed strong responses to variance-prediction errors generated by the same model. Subjective feelings about offers correlated with these norm prediction errors, and the two signals displayed overlapping, but not identical, neural correlates in striatum, insula, and medial orbitofrontal cortex. These results provide evidence for the hypothesis that responses in anterior insula can encode information about social norm violations that correlate with changes in overt behavior (changes in rejection rates). Together, these results demonstrate that the brain regions involved in reward prediction and risk prediction are also recruited in signaling social norm violations.

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