Stimulus generalization as a mechanism for learning to trust

Oriel FeldmanHall, Joseph E. Dunsmoor, Alexa Tompary, Lindsay E. Hunter, Alexander Todorov, Elizabeth A. Phelps

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations

Abstract

How do humans learn to trust unfamiliar others? Decisions in the absence of direct knowledge rely on our ability to generalize from past experiences and are often shaped by the degree of similarity between prior experience and novel situations. Here, we leverage a stimulus generalization framework to examine how perceptual similarity between known individuals and unfamiliar strangers shapes social learning. In a behavioral study, subjects play an iterative trust game with three partners who exhibit highly trustworthy, somewhat trustworthy, or highly untrustworthy behavior. After learning who can be trusted, subjects select new partners for a second game. Unbeknownst to subjects, each potential new partner was parametrically morphed with one of the three original players. Results reveal that subjects prefer to play with strangers who implicitly resemble the original player they previously learned was trustworthy and avoid playing with strangers resembling the untrustworthy player. These decisions to trust or distrust strangers formed a generalization gradient that converged toward baseline as perceptual similarity to the original player diminished. In a second imaging experiment we replicate these behavioral gradients and leverage multivariate pattern similarity analyses to reveal that a tuning profile of activation patterns in the amygdala selectively captures increasing perceptions of untrustworthiness. We additionally observe that within the caudate adaptive choices to trust rely on neural activation patterns similar to those elicited when learning about unrelated, but perceptually familiar, individuals. Together, these findings suggest an associative learning mechanism efficiently deploys moral information encoded from past experiences to guide future choice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)E1690-E1697
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Volume115
Issue number7
DOIs
StatePublished - Feb 13 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General

Keywords

  • Amygdala
  • Caudate
  • Social learning
  • Stimulus generalization
  • Trust

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