Learning to predict others’ behavior: neural mechanisms of social-categorical knowledge acquisition and utilization

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As social animals, we are constantly required to speculate about other individual’s behavior. Given the complexity and highly variable nature of human behavior, we tend to group people into certain categories from as early as infancy, in order to make better predictions about others’ behavior. The ability to reason about others’ intentions and mental states is called having a theory of mind, and this network has been studied elaborately. It is further established that we make use of social-categorical knowledge stored in the temporal cortex while making such predictions. But the exact neural mechanisms underlying prediction of other’s behavior based on social-categorical knowledge still remains unknown. To answer this question, we designed a task in which participants were asked to predict the behavior of individual agents, based on prior social-categorical knowledge that they learn during the experiment. Behavioral findings show that the participants learnt to successfully perform the task progressively better with higher prediction efficiency indices throughout the experiment. While the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the anterior temporal lobe showed increase in activation upon acquiring social-categorical information towards the later half of the experiment, areas like temporoparietal junction (TPJ), superior temporal sulcus (STS), middle occipital gyrus and fusiform gyrus showed increase in activation upon witnessing unexpected outcomes. Furthermore, we show that there was increased functional connectivity between mPFC and TPJ, as well as mPFC and STS while utilizing social-categorical knowledge to predict others’ actions. Our study thus outlines the key brain regions involved in behavior prediction by social-categorization. We further discuss our results under the light of hierarchical predictive coding theory, which has been proposed to be a potential candidate to explain the process of mentalizing and open up a venue for further exploration.
Faculteit der Sociale Wetenschappen