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Reality TV helps explain how brain reacts to social feedback

Ever wondered what goes through the contestants’ heads on reality TV shows like Strictly Come Dancing, The Apprentice or Big Brother when they learn the results of the public vote? Now new research has revealed what happens in an individual’s brain when they receive positive and negative social comments in relation to others in this competitive way.

Previous research has shown that negative social feedback activates regions of the brain associated with processing of physical pain, giving rise to the idea of a brain circuit that processes social pain. This new study examined whether they process any socially important information, not just negative or painful.

The researchers found for the first time that these two brain regions, the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and the anterior insula (Ai) responded to both negative and positive social feedback. They believe the results, published today in the journal Scientific Reports, have implications for our understanding of what happens during times of mental illness and may improve understanding of, and help for, people who may be over or under-reactive to important social signals.

The study was conducted by scientists at the University of East Anglia (UEA), the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit (MRC CBSU) in Cambridge, and University of Cambridge. They created a false, yet believable, scenario inspired by reality TV to understand how people react when being judged on their positive and negative social attributes.

One of the lead authors Dr Nick Walsh, from UEA’s School of Psychology, said: “We show that this brain network is involved in a broader function than previously thought. Within social contexts, it has previously been associated with experiences of social exclusion and rejection. However, our results show comparable patterns of involvement of this network in the processing of signals of social inclusion and of social acceptance.”

Dr Jason Stretton, senior author of the study from the MRC CBSU said “Our findings suggest that theoretical accounts regarding the functioning of the dACC-AI brain circuit within the social domain now require significant revision.

“We argue that the results are more consistent with a framework in which these brain regions function as a ‘neural sociometer’, an evolved mechanism that allows us to gauge how high our social status is. These results mirror a similar theoretical shift concerning the brain’s so-called physical pain networks which have also been shown to be heavily implicated in the processing of physical pleasure.”

In the study 56 adolescent participants aged 17-19 were recruited to take part in a Big Brother-style game. They were told they were competing against three other contestants and had to complete a series of tasks in order to win through successive rounds of the game, to eventually win. In reality only one round of the game was played with all participants being voted off at the end.

Participants created one minute videos in which they talked about themselves and their aspirations, believing their performance was being rated on six social attributes, including social attractiveness, motivation and emotional sensitivity, by a panel of six judges. They were also able to view and rate the videos of the other contestants.

Reactions to the judges’ ‘feedback’ and final decision on who should be rejected were then captured while participants were in an MRI scanner. They were told that the other contestants were in scanners located across the UK, which were electronically linked so they could play the game interactively. In fact, only the participants were being scanned.

In order to provide signals of social inclusion and social exclusion, participants received false feedback from each judge on each social attribute relative to the other contestants and were then asked to rate how the feedback made them feel. Feedback was either socially positive, negative or neutral over the course of the task.

“We really worked hard to create an immersive experience for participants,” added Dr Walsh. “Pretty much everyone believed they were actually competing live with other similarly aged people in other parts of the country; at the end participants commented on how enjoyable they found the study.”

‘Social pain and social gain in the adolescent brain: A common neural circuitry underlying both positive and negative social evaluation’, Dalgleish T, Walsh N D, Mobbs D, Schweizer S, van Harmelen A-L, Dunn B, Dunn V, Goodyer I, Stretton J is published in Scientific Reports.

Image: iStock/BlackJack3D

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