The brain bases of social conformity – a better understanding of framing
Decision making is never free from context, be it social or otherwise. We all know how gullible mac fans are when the new iPhone comes out, and both psychology and behavioural economics are filled with examples of just how easy it is to affect people’s perception and choice.
Two related questions are of interest when we try to understand the contextual effects on the choosing brain. First, what causes people, during a social interaction or game play, to be affected by beliefs about others’ motives and goals? How can a mere shift in the name of a game (e.g. from “Wall street game” to a “community game”) make people change their behaviour substantially? After all, it’s just the same game.
Second, how do brands affect our perception and choice? What is the actual mechanism with which a brand can imbue value to an otherwise static product that is indeed no different from the next?
To understand the brain bases of such “framing effects” we conducted a study conjointly between the Copenhagen Business School and the Copenhagen University Hospital. The paper, now in press at the Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics (a working paper version can be downloaded from here) made substantial advances in our understanding of the brain bases of framing effects. The article is entitled “The Neural Bases of Framing Effects in Social Dilemmas” and was co-authored with professors Toke Fosgaard, Julian Macoveanu, Martin Skov and Hartwig Siebner. as the abstract reads:
Human behavior in social dilemmas is strongly framed by the social context, but the mechanisms underlying this framing effect remains poorly understood. To identify the behavioral and neural responses mediating framing of social interactions, subjects underwent functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging while playing a Prisoners Dilemma game. In separate neuroimaging sessions, the game was either framed as a cooperation game or a competition game. Social decisions where subjects were affected by the frame engaged the hippocampal formation, precuneus, dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and lateral temporal gyrus. Among these regions, the engagement of the left hippocampus was further modulated by individual differences in empathy. Social decisions not adhering to the frame were associated with stronger engagement of the angular gyrus and trend increases in lateral orbitofrontal cortex, posterior intraparietal cortex, and temporopolar cortex. Our findings provide the first insight into the mechanisms underlying framing of behavior in social dilemmas, indicating increased engagement of the hippocampus and neocortical areas involved in memory, social reasoning and mentalizing when subjects make decisions that conform to the imposed social frame.
Social behaviour is malleable
To chunk this out, the first part of the study looked at to what extent people would change their behaviour back and forth when told that they played a “competition” game or a “cooperation” game. The game was rigged according to standard setup rules for a Prisoner’s Dilemma, only that this game was iterative. Prior studies had shown that these labels would indeed change people’s behaviour, but only in separate groups. Here, we needed to see if the same person would adjust their behaviour accordingly.
Indeed, this is what we found. On average, people were cooperative 29% of the times when they were told that they were playing a “competition” game with another anonymous person. Conversely, when they believed that they were playing a “cooperation” game, the cooperation rate was an average of 61%. This was even though they were playing the exact same game (see figure below).
Mentalising is key
An additional factor in the behavioural study was that we also asked, for each round in the game, to have people estimate what they believed was the other player’s intention. Here, we found that in the “competition” frame, participants believed that the other person would cooperate half of the times (50%), while in the “cooperation” frame, the believed that the other would cooperate 65% of the times.
One finding from this suggests that indeed, people employ “mentalising” when they are making social decisions. Mentalizing is often referred to the capacity to infer the mental states of others, and could be one core building block of why we adopt to frames in social dilemmas.
Interestingly, the findings also show a discrepancy: even when participants explicitly stated that they believed that the other would cooperate half of the times in the “competition” frame, their behaviour suggested that the true belief was actually about 29% of the times. Alternatively, some participants may have used their belief in others’ cooperation willingness to utilise this to gain themselves.
The brain bases of framing in social dilemmas
A core approach in our study was to demonstrate the brain functions underlying what happens when people are swayed by the frame information. What happens when people shift their cooperation strategy, just because the name of the game changes? In the fMRI study, the design of the experiment allowed us to analyse the effects of conforming to the frame information. In particular, we were interested in whether frame-conformity was related to an increase in activation of the so-called mentalizing network of the brain.
Here, we found that a network of brain areas were engaged when the contextual information affected people’s behaviour. On the one side, memory structures such as the hippocampus seemed to be a major player in these effects. Even more notably, we saw an increased activity in the brain’s mentalizing network, including the precuneus, dorsomedial PFC and lateral temporal cortex.
Together, these findings suggest that the influence of contextual information in social dilemmas is driven by an engagement of a core memory structure, and especially an engagement of the brain’s mentalizing network.
Speculating about framing, branding and choice
Contextual information affects social behaviours by increasing our brain’s mentalizing network engagement. In this sense, having a stronger engagement of this network would possibly lead to a more pro-conformity behaviour pattern. Indeed, this is exactly what we found in a previous paper, as described at this page.
What one might speculate, and that these data cannot reveal, is the actual causal mechanisms underlying this framing effect. One possible scenario is that the hippocampus, being a memory “hub” as it is, is triggered to engage the task-relevant network. In this case, it engaged the mentalizing network of the brain, because this was the relevant network to imply.
In other conditions, such as branding, the same function could take place where the hippocampus, triggered by the brand, would lead to an increased engagement of the relevant association networks. This could explain some of the results found in hallmark studies such as McClure’s finding that the Coca-Cola brand lead to a stronger engagement of the hippocampus and dorsolateral PFC, while Pepsi did no such thing. (Other studies have reported similar results without the hippocampus engaged, but may have used an fMRI acquisition method that would allow detection of activity in the hippocampus, hence a false negative).
As we learn more about how the brain works on framing, branding and context influencers, we will also be better at understanding how such influences can work to affect people’s preference and choice in a desirable direction. While this insight in itself may produce little harm and even be used to do good, such as affecting obesity, drug abuse and other unhealthy choices, the actual neuroethics underlying this insight needs to be probed further.