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Social signals of safety and risk confer utility and have asymmetric effects on observers' choices

Nature Neuroscience volume 18, pages 912916 (2015) | Download Citation

Abstract

Individuals' risk attitudes are known to guide choices about uncertain options. However, in the presence of others' decisions, these choices can be swayed and manifest as riskier or safer behavior than one would express alone. To test the mechanisms underlying effective social 'nudges' in human decision-making, we used functional neuroimaging and a task in which participants made choices about gambles alone and after observing others' selections. Against three alternative explanations, we found that observing others' choices of gambles increased the subjective value (utility) of those gambles for the observer. This 'other-conferred utility' was encoded in ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and these neural signals predicted conformity. We further identified a parametric interaction with individual risk preferences in anterior cingulate cortex and insula. These data provide a neuromechanistic account of how information from others is integrated with individual preferences that may explain preference-congruent susceptibility to social signals of safety and risk.

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Acknowledgements

We thank R. Montague, T. Lohrenz and S. LaConte, and gratefully acknowledge the technical assistance of J. Lu, J. Shin, and members of the Chiu and King-Casas laboratories. This work was supported in part by the US National Institutes of Health (MH091872 and MH087692 to P.H.C. DA036017 to B.K.-C.).

Author information

Author notes

    • George I Christopoulos
    •  & Brooks King-Casas

    These authors contributed equally to this work.

Affiliations

  1. Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, Roanoke, Virginia, USA.

    • Dongil Chung
    • , George I Christopoulos
    • , Brooks King-Casas
    • , Sheryl B Ball
    •  & Pearl H Chiu
  2. Culture Science Institute, Nanyang Business School, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

    • George I Christopoulos
  3. Department of Psychology, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia, USA.

    • Brooks King-Casas
    •  & Pearl H Chiu
  4. Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine, Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, Roanoke, Virginia, USA.

    • Brooks King-Casas
    •  & Pearl H Chiu
  5. Salem Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Salem, Virginia, USA.

    • Brooks King-Casas
    •  & Pearl H Chiu
  6. Virginia Tech Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences, Blackburg, Virginia, USA.

    • Brooks King-Casas
  7. Department of Economics, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia, USA.

    • Sheryl B Ball

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Contributions

G.I.C., B.K.-C. and P.H.C. designed the experiments. D.C., G.I.C., B.K.-C. and P.H.C. analyzed the data. All of the authors discussed the analyses and results. D.C. and P.H.C. drafted the initial manuscript. All of the authors revised and approved the final manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Pearl H Chiu.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.4022

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