Predicting decisions in human social interactions using real-time fMRI and pattern classification

PLoS One. 2011;6(10):e25304. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0025304. Epub 2011 Oct 7.


Negotiation and trade typically require a mutual interaction while simultaneously resting in uncertainty which decision the partner ultimately will make at the end of the process. Assessing already during the negotiation in which direction one's counterpart tends would provide a tremendous advantage. Recently, neuroimaging techniques combined with multivariate pattern classification of the acquired data have made it possible to discriminate subjective states of mind on the basis of their neuronal activation signature. However, to enable an online-assessment of the participant's mind state both approaches need to be extended to a real-time technique. By combining real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and online pattern classification techniques, we show that it is possible to predict human behavior during social interaction before the interacting partner communicates a specific decision. Average accuracy reached approximately 70% when we predicted online the decisions of volunteers playing the ultimatum game, a well-known paradigm in economic game theory. Our results demonstrate the successful online analysis of complex emotional and cognitive states using real-time fMRI, which will enable a major breakthrough for social fMRI by providing information about mental states of partners already during the mutual interaction. Interestingly, an additional whole brain classification across subjects confirmed the online results: anterior insula, ventral striatum, and lateral orbitofrontal cortex, known to act in emotional self-regulation and reward processing for adjustment of behavior, appeared to be strong determinants of later overt behavior in the ultimatum game. Using whole brain classification we were also able to discriminate between brain processes related to subjective emotional and motivational states and brain processes related to the evaluation of objective financial incentives.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Behavior / physiology
  • Brain / blood supply
  • Brain / physiology
  • Decision Making* / physiology
  • Emotions / physiology
  • Humans
  • Interpersonal Relations*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Motivation / physiology
  • Multivariate Analysis
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Support Vector Machine*
  • Time Factors


  • Oxygen