Brain's 'social enforcer' centers identified

October 3, 2007

Researchers have identified brain structures that process the threat of punishment for violating social norms. They said that their findings suggest a neural basis for treating children, adolescents, and even immature adults differently in the criminal justice system, since the neural circuitry for processing the threat of such punishment is not as developed in younger individuals as it is in adults. The researchers also said that their identification of the brain’s “social norm compliance” structures also opens the way to exploring whether psychopaths have deficiencies in these structures’ circuitry.

Manfred Spitzer, Ernst Fehr, and colleagues published their findings in the October 4, 2007 issue of the journal Neuron, published by Cell Press.

“In this study, we sought to uncover the neural circuits involved in forced norm compliance,” wrote the researchers. “This question touches the very foundations of human sociality because the establishment of large-scale cooperation through social norms is a unique feature of the human species. Norm compliance among humans is either based on people’s voluntary compliance with standards of behavior that are viewed as normatively legitimate or on the enforcement of compliance through punishment. Although much compliance is voluntary, there can be little doubt that social order would quickly break down in the absence of punishment threats because a minority of noncompliers can trigger a process that leads to widespread noncompliance due to the conditional nature of many people’s compliance.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study that examines the brain processes involved in humans’ behavioral response to the threat of punishment for social norm violations,” wrote the researchers.

In their experiments, the researchers instructed one person to decide how much money from a shared pot to give to a second recipient. In a control condition, the second person was merely a passive recipient of whatever amount the first person decided. However, in the punishment condition, the recipient could decide to punish the first person by spending all or part of another pot of money, which would reduce the first person’s earnings.

During the control and punishment conditions, the first person’s brain was scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging. This widely used scanning technique involves using harmless magnetic fields and radio signals to measure blood flow in brain regions, which reflects brain activity.

The researchers found that the scanned subjects showed activation of specific areas of the prefrontal cortex while they were making decisions that they knew could bring punishment. The areas that were activated were known to be involved in control of decision-making related to fairness and evaluation of punishing stimuli.

To establish that the activated brain areas were specifically involved in social punishment, the researchers also tested the subjects’ brain responses when a computer and not a person meted out the punishment. The researchers found that such nonsocial punishment produced significantly less activation in the brain areas.

The researchers also tested whether “Machiavellian” personality traits—selfishness and opportunism—affected people’s responses on the tests. To assess the subjects’ Machiavellian leanings, the researchers gave them a questionnaire that determined those tendencies.

The researchers found that people who scored higher on Machiavellism transferred less money during the control condition and more during the threat of punishment. The Machiavellians also showed higher activation of key brain areas involved in social norm compliance, found the researchers.

“Therefore, Machiavellian subjects earned the highest incomes because they earned most in the control condition and were best at escaping punishment in the social punishment condition,” they wrote.

The researchers said their findings could have implications for understanding the basis of psychopathic behavior, since people with lesions in the prefrontal areas show an inability to behave in appropriate ways, even though they understand social norms.

Thus, a dysfunction in the areas involved “might also underlie certain psychopathological disorders characterized by excessively selfish tendencies and a failure to obey basic social norms,” they wrote.

Identification of the brain’s social norm compliance circuitry “might have implications for the criminal justice system,” concluded the researchers. “As these brain areas are not yet fully developed in children, adolescents, or even young adults, our results are consistent with the view that these groups may be less able to activate the evaluative and inhibitory neural circuitry necessary for the appropriate processing of punishment threats. Thus, our results might provide support for the view that the criminal justice system should treat children, adolescents, and immature adults differently from adults,” they wrote.

Source: Cell Press

Explore further: Can brain lesions contribute to criminal behavior?

Related Stories

Can brain lesions contribute to criminal behavior?

December 18, 2017
New research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that lesions to brain areas in individuals exhibiting criminal behavior all fall within a particular brain network involved in moral ...

Discovery could lead to new treatment for anxiety, addiction

November 10, 2017
New research provides fresh insight into how the brain processes reward and punishment, opening new avenues for developing treatment of conditions ranging from anxiety to addictive behaviors such as drug abuse.

High-stress childhoods blind adults to potential loss

December 4, 2017
Adults who lived high-stress childhoods have trouble reading the signs that a loss or punishment is looming, leaving themselves in situations that risk avoidable health and financial problems and legal trouble.

Human-dog bond provides clue to treating social disorders

December 4, 2017
The chemistry behind social behaviour in animals, including the bond between people and dogs – and the lack of one between humans and wolves – could help scientists identify new ways of treating social disorders such ...

What is tramadol, how dangerous is it – and where is it illegal?

November 8, 2017
An Englishwoman named Laura Plummer is in jail in Egypt on suspicion of drug trafficking 290 tramadol tablets. The tablets (available on prescription in the UK) were found in her suitcase when it was examined at Hurghada ...

How Spidey, Superman and Sherlock keep us sane

October 30, 2017
Superheroes like Spider-Man, Batman and Superman keep us sane while we struggle to feel safe in our overcrowded cities.

Recommended for you

Forces from fluid in the developing lung play an essential role in organ development

January 23, 2018
It is a marvel of nature: during gestation, multiple tissue types cooperate in building the elegantly functional structures of organs, from the brain's folds to the heart's multiple chambers. A recent study by Princeton researchers ...

More surprises about blood development—and a possible lead for making lymphocytes

January 22, 2018
Hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) have long been regarded as the granddaddy of all blood cells. After we are born, these multipotent cells give rise to all our cell lineages: lymphoid, myeloid and erythroid cells. Hematologists ...

How metal scaffolds enhance the bone healing process

January 22, 2018
A new study shows how mechanically optimized constructs known as titanium-mesh scaffolds can optimize bone regeneration. The induction of bone regeneration is of importance when treating large bone defects. As demonstrated ...

Researchers illustrate how muscle growth inhibitor is activated, could aid in treating ALS

January 19, 2018
Researchers at the University of Cincinnati (UC) College of Medicine are part of an international team that has identified how the inactive or latent form of GDF8, a signaling protein also known as myostatin responsible for ...

Bioengineered soft microfibers improve T-cell production

January 18, 2018
T cells play a key role in the body's immune response against pathogens. As a new class of therapeutic approaches, T cells are being harnessed to fight cancer, promising more precise, longer-lasting mitigation than traditional, ...

Weight flux alters molecular profile, study finds

January 17, 2018
The human body undergoes dramatic changes during even short periods of weight gain and loss, according to a study led by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.