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The human amygdala in social judgment


Studies in animals have implicated the amygdala in emotional1,2,3, and social4,5,6, behaviours, especially those related to fear and aggression. Although lesion7,8,9,10, and functional imaging11,12,13,14, studies in humans have demonstrated the amygdala's participation in recognizing emotional facial expressions, its role in human social behaviour has remained unclear. We report here our investigation into the hypothesis that the human amygdala is required for accurate social judgments of other individuals on the basis of their facial appearance. We asked three subjects with complete bilateral amygdala damage to judge faces of unfamiliar people with respect to two attributes important in real-life social encounters: approachability and trustworthiness. All three subjects judged unfamiliar individuals to be more approachable and more trustworthy than did control subjects. The impairment was most striking for faces to which normal subjects assign the most negative ratings: unapproachable and untrustworthy looking individuals. Additional investigations revealed that the impairment does not extend to judging verbal descriptions of people. The amygdala appears to be an important component of the neural systems that help retrieve socially relevant knowledge on the basis of facial appearance.

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Figure 1: Mean judgments.
Figure 2: Deviations from normal judgments.
Figure 3: Disproportionate impairment in choosing the most unapproachable faces.
Figure 4: Likeability ratings of lexical stimuli.

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We thank J. Suhr and J. Nath for technical assistance in testing subjects, D. Krutzfeldt for help in scheduling subjects and H. Damasio for comments on the manuscript. This study was supported by a grant from the National Institute for Neurological Diseases and Stroke.

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Correspondence to Ralph Adolphs.

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Adolphs, R., Tranel, D. & Damasio, A. The human amygdala in social judgment. Nature 393, 470–474 (1998).

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