December 1, 2020

Confirmation of interpersonal expectations is intrinsically rewarding

Despite the inherent sociality of human nature, other people pose some of the most difficult challenges to the mind. To successfully interact with other individuals, we need to predict their future responses, a computationally-vexing problem given the enormous range of behaviors in which other people can engage. Decades of research have demonstrated that to simplify this task, perceivers routinely draw on prior beliefs-that is, rather than wait to construct social predictions solely on relevant incoming information, people regularly use prior knowledge, stereotypes, and other sources of information to proactively predict the traits and behaviors of other people. Such research has also demonstrated that once formed, these predictions strongly influence social interactions even when people attempt to change or ignore them. Here, we test the hypothesis that our social predictions resist change because perceivers place high subjective value on having their expectations of others confirmed. Across four studies, we report data consistent with this hypothesis, both when perceivers’ expectations derive from gender stereotypes and when they derive from knowledge of familiar individuals. Specifically, in two neuroimaging experiments (n = 58), we observed increased activation in brain regions associated with reward processing-including the nucleus accumbens-when social expectations were confirmed. In two additional behavioral experiments (n = 704), we observed that perceivers were willing to forgo money to encounter an expectation-confirming target and avoid an expectation-violating target. Together, these findings suggest that perceivers value having their social expectations confirmed, much like other primary or secondary rewards.

 bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience

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