Learning under social versus nonsocial uncertainty: A meta-analytic approach

Hum Brain Mapp. 2022 Sep;43(13):4185-4206. doi: 10.1002/hbm.25948. Epub 2022 May 27.


Much of the uncertainty that clouds our understanding of the world springs from the covert values and intentions held by other people. Thus, it is plausible that specialized mechanisms that compute learning signals under uncertainty of exclusively social origin operate in the brain. To test this hypothesis, we scoured academic databases for neuroimaging studies involving learning under uncertainty, and performed a meta-analysis of brain activation maps that compared learning in the face of social versus nonsocial uncertainty. Although most of the brain activations associated with learning error signals were shared between social and nonsocial conditions, we found some evidence for functional segregation of error signals of exclusively social origin during learning in limited regions of ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and insula. This suggests that most behavioral adaptations to navigate social environments are reused from frontal and subcortical areas processing generic value representation and learning, but that a specialized circuitry might have evolved in prefrontal regions to deal with social context representation and strategic action.

Keywords: functional magnetic resonance imaging; iterated games; reinforcement learning; theory of mind.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain Mapping
  • Brain* / diagnostic imaging
  • Humans
  • Learning
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging* / methods
  • Neuroimaging
  • Uncertainty