Social exclusion reliably engages the default network: A meta-analysis of Cyberball

Neuroimage. 2021 Feb 15;227:117666. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2020.117666. Epub 2020 Dec 29.


Social exclusion refers to the experience of being disregarded or rejected by others and has wide-ranging negative consequences for well-being and cognition. Cyberball, a game where a ball is virtually tossed between players, then leads to the exclusion of the research participant, is a common method used to examine the experience of social exclusion. The neural correlates of social exclusion remain a topic of debate, particularly with regards to the role of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and the concept of social pain. Here we conducted a quantitative meta-analysis using activation likelihood estimation (ALE) to identify brain activity reliably engaged by social exclusion during Cyberball task performance (Studies = 53; total N = 1,817 participants). Results revealed consistent recruitment in ventral anterior cingulate and posterior cingulate cortex, inferior and superior frontal gyri, posterior insula, and occipital pole. No reliable activity was observed in dACC. Using a probabilistic atlas to define dACC, fewer than 15% of studies reported peak coordinates in dACC. Meta-analytic connectivity mapping suggests patterns of co-activation are consistent with the topography of the default network. Reverse inference for cognition associated with reliable Cyberball activity computed in Neurosynth revealed social exclusion to be associated with cognitive terms Social, Autobiographical, Mental States, and Theory of Mind. Taken together, these findings highlight the role of the default network in social exclusion and warns against interpretations of the dACC as a key region involved in the experience of social exclusion in humans.

Keywords: Cyberball; Default network; Functional MRI; Meta-analysis; Meta-analytic connectivity modeling; Social exclusion.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping / methods
  • Default Mode Network / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Psychological Distance
  • Social Isolation*