Humans have a strong tendency to affiliate with other people, especially in emotional situations. Here, we suggest that a critical mechanism underlying this tendency is that socially sharing emotional experiences is in itself perceived as hedonically positive and thereby contributes to the regulation of individual emotions. We investigated the effect of social sharing of emotions on subjective feelings and neural activity by having pairs of friends view emotional (negative and positive) and neutral pictures either alone or with the friend. While the two friends remained physically separated throughout the experiment-with one undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging and the other performing the task in an adjacent room-they were made aware on a trial-by-trial basis whether they were seeing pictures simultaneously with their friend (shared) or alone (unshared). Ratings of subjective feelings were improved significantly when participants viewed emotional pictures together than alone, an effect that was accompanied by activity increase in ventral striatum and medial orbitofrontal cortex, two important components of the reward circuitry. Because these effects occurred without any communication or interaction between the friends, they point to an important proximate explanation for the basic human motivation to affiliate with others, particularly in emotional situations.
Keywords: affiliation; emotion regulation; fMRI; reward; social sharing.
© The Author (2014). Published by Oxford University Press.