Is dorsal anterior cingulate cortex activation in response to social exclusion due to expectancy violation? An fMRI study

Front Evol Neurosci. 2012 Jul 27;4:11. doi: 10.3389/fnevo.2012.00011. eCollection 2012.


People are typically quite sensitive about being accepted or excluded by others. Previous studies have suggested that the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) is a key brain region involved in the detection of social exclusion. However, this region has also been shown to be sensitive to non-social expectancy violations. We often expect other people to follow an unwritten rule in which they include us as they would expect to be included, such that social exclusion likely involves some degree of expectancy violation. The present event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study sought to separate the effects of expectancy violation from those of social exclusion, such that we employed an "overinclusion" condition in which a player was unexpectedly overincluded in the game by the other players. With this modification, we found that the dACC and right ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (rVLPFC) were activated by exclusion, relative to overinclusion. In addition, we identified a negative correlation between exclusion-evoked brain activity and self-rated social pain in the rVLPFC, but not in the dACC. These findings suggest that the rVLPFC is critical for regulating social pain, whereas the dACC plays an important role in the detection of exclusion. The neurobiological basis of social exclusion is different from that of mere expectancy violation.

Keywords: anterior cingulate cortex; event-related design; expectancy violation; fMRI; social exclusion; ventrolateral prefrontal cortex.