Neural regions that underlie reinforcement learning are also active for social expectancy violations

Lasana T. Harris, Susan T. Fiske

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


Prediction error, the difference between an expected and an actual outcome, serves as a learning signal that interacts with reward and punishment value to direct future behavior during reinforcement learning. We hypothesized that similar learning and valuation signals may underlie social expectancy violations. Here, we explore the neural correlates of social expectancy violation signals along the universal person-perception dimensions trait warmth and competence. In this context, social learning may result from expectancy violations that occur when a target is inconsistent with an a priori schema. Expectancy violation may activate neural regions normally implicated in prediction error and valuation during appetitive and aversive conditioning. Using fMRI, we first gave perceivers high warmth or competence behavioral information that led to dispositional or situational attributions for the behavior. Participants then saw pictures of people responsible for the behavior; they represented social groups either inconsistent (rated low on either warmth or competence) or consistent (rated high on either warmth or competence) with the behavior information. Warmth and competence expectancy violations activate striatal regions that represent evaluative and prediction error signals. Social cognition regions underlie consistent expectations. These findings suggest that regions underlying reinforcement learning may work in concert with social cognition regions in warmth and competence social expectancy. This study illustrates the neural overlap between neuroeconomics and social neuroscience.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)76-91
Number of pages16
JournalSocial Neuroscience
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Development
  • Social Psychology
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


  • Reinforcement learning
  • Social expectancy violation
  • Striatum
  • Trait attribution
  • Trait warmth and competence


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