Effects of Direct Social Experience on Trust Decisions and Neural Reward Circuitry

Front Neurosci. 2012 Oct 16;6:148. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2012.00148. eCollection 2012.


The human striatum is integral for reward-processing and supports learning by linking experienced outcomes with prior expectations. Recent endeavors implicate the striatum in processing outcomes of social interactions, such as social approval/rejection, as well as in learning reputations of others. Interestingly, social impressions often influence our behavior with others during interactions. Information about an interaction partner's moral character acquired from biographical information hinders updating of expectations after interactions via top down modulation of reward circuitry. An outstanding question is whether initial impressions formed through experience similarly modulate the ability to update social impressions at the behavioral and neural level. We investigated the role of experienced social information on trust behavior and reward-related BOLD activity. Participants played a computerized ball-tossing game with three fictional partners manipulated to be perceived as good, bad, or neutral. Participants then played an iterated trust game as investors with these same partners while undergoing fMRI. Unbeknownst to participants, partner behavior in the trust game was random and unrelated to their ball-tossing behavior. Participants' trust decisions were influenced by their prior experience in the ball-tossing game, investing less often with the bad partner compared to the good and neutral. Reinforcement learning models revealed that participants were more sensitive to updating their beliefs about good and bad partners when experiencing outcomes consistent with initial experience. Increased striatal and anterior cingulate BOLD activity for positive versus negative trust game outcomes emerged, which further correlated with model-derived prediction error learning signals. These results suggest that initial impressions formed from direct social experience can be continually shaped by consistent information through reward learning mechanisms.

Keywords: learning; prediction error; reward; social experience; striatum; trust.