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Social signals of safety and risk confer utility and have asymmetric effects on observers' choices

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Individuals' risk attitudes are known to guide choices about uncertain options. However, in the presence of others' decisions, these choices can be swayed and manifest as riskier or safer behavior than one would express alone. To test the mechanisms underlying effective social 'nudges' in human decision-making, we used functional neuroimaging and a task in which participants made choices about gambles alone and after observing others' selections. Against three alternative explanations, we found that observing others' choices of gambles increased the subjective value (utility) of those gambles for the observer. This 'other-conferred utility' was encoded in ventromedial prefrontal cortex, and these neural signals predicted conformity. We further identified a parametric interaction with individual risk preferences in anterior cingulate cortex and insula. These data provide a neuromechanistic account of how information from others is integrated with individual preferences that may explain preference-congruent susceptibility to social signals of safety and risk.




Chung, D., Christopoulos, G. I., King-Casas, B., Ball, S. B., & Chiu, P. H. (2015). Social signals of safety and risk confer utility and have asymmetric effects on observers’ choices. Nature Neuroscience, 18(6), 912–916.

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