When assessing another person’s value as a potential friend or partner, good character tends to significantly outweigh any concrete benefits or “rewards” we may receive from them, according to a new study at New York University (NYU).
“When we learn and make decisions about people, we don’t simply look at the positive or negative outcomes they bring to us such as whether they gave us a loan or helped us move,” explains Leor Hackel, a doctoral candidate in NYU’s Department of Psychology and the study’s lead author.
“Instead, we often look beyond concrete outcomes to form trait impressions, such as how generous a person seems to be, and these impressions carry more weight in our future social decisions.”
The research offers new insights into how we learn about people from our interactions and departs from the prevailing view that we tend to see people or things in terms of the benefits — or “reward value” — they can bring us.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers monitored participants’ brain activity during an experiment in which participants were asked to make a series of reward-based decisions.
For the experiment, participants were asked to play an economic game with one another. This interaction allowed them to observe and learn about the other players.
For each round of the game, one participant viewed two other players and chose one to interact with; the chosen player would then share an amount of money. Some shared a lot, while others shared a little.
Importantly, some players had larger pots of money than others, and so the amount they shared could represent a large or small fraction of their funds. The proportion shared with others ultimately represented a player’s generosity, which was independent from the absolute value of the money they shared.
The aim of this part of the study was to determine whether participants made a mental note of the relative generosity of a player — a “trait impression” — in addition to learning the monetary worth of the player.
The findings revealed that participants remembered generosity information (the proportion the player gave relative to his endowment) more strongly than reward value (the absolute amount the player actually gave).
The strong tendency to focus on a player’s trait characteristics was striking, say the researchers, considering that computer modeling shows that a focus on a player’s reward value would have yielded more money to the participant.
During the experiment, the researchers examined the brain activity of the subjects as they learned about the reward value and generosity of other players. Here, they found that subjects used a particular part of the brain — the ventral striatum — in learning reward value from the feedback of players. This is consistent with prior research.
However, they found that the striatum was also involved in learning about a player’s trait generosity, over and above their reward value, suggesting this brain region plays a broader role in learning than previously thought.
Finally, when participants were asked to tell which other players they would choose for a future cooperative task, their preferences were strongly guided by their trait impressions of players, over the players’ reward value.
“We think our findings will change the way scientists think about the role of value and the striatum in learning about people and things,” said Dr. David Amodio, an associate professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology.
“In other words, our results show that people naturally see others and even objects in terms of more general characteristics — and not just in terms of mere reward value.”
The study is published in the journal Nature Neuroscience.
Source: New York University