Social norms elicit activity in distinct brain regions

Social norms elicit activity in distinct brain regions, according to a meta-analytic study published in the journal Human Brain Mapping.

“My research interests are social norms and mechanisms of its enforcement in social groups. I was interested how the brain processes the information about normative concepts in healthy people to extend our understanding of the neural basis of decision making in social conditions,” said study author Oksana Zinchenko, a PhD student at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

“When more and more papers examined the neural correlates of this process in the healthy brain, we become able to compute a concordant map of activations across different studies, which could help to guide future research in patients. In particular, the results of our meta-analytic study could help to guide future research in patients with autism spectrum disorder.”

Zinchenko and her colleague, Marie Arsalidou, conducted a meta-analysis of 36 previous studies that used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine brain responses to social norms — such as fairness — and violations of norms. The studies included 993 participants in total.

Many of the studies investigated social norms and norm violations with tasks such as the Public Goods Game, the Ultimatum Game, and the Prisoner’s Dilemma.

“The reader who is interested in social neuroscience is confronted with an overwhelming amount of information, when he or she starts to read scientific articles related to this field. Due to the different paradigms used, the results could be contradictory and not very clear,” Zinchenko explained.

“The meta-analytic study provides the statistically concordant map of brain activations across a large number of studies and characterizes the commonalities of all studies included. In the case of our study, the results of our meta-analytic work describes the neural representation of social norms and norm violations.”

The researchers found that the processing of social norms mainly activated the regions of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, while norm violations mainly activated the insula along with dorsolateral prefrontal regions and parts of the cingulate gyrus.

“The meta-analytic study requires a certain number of studies (at least 17-20 experiments) to detect smaller effects and to avoid false-positive results (if the findings are driven by the effect of single experiments),” Zinchenko said. “Because of the small number of studies published, we were not able to perform additional analysis to compute brain maps for social and moral subdomains separately. Despite these shortcomings, our meta-analysis presents new knowledge of social norms.”