The bilateral claustrum remain active during activities involving social punishment

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Research Fellow at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, HSE University, has conducted meta-analysis of 17 articles to find out which areas of the brain are involved decision-making for rendering social punishment.

It would appear that in case of both victims of violations as well as witnesses, punishment decisions activate the brain regions responsible for focusing one’s attention, processing information, and responding effectively to social interaction.

The findings of the study were published in Scientific Reports.

Social punishment is necessary in order to maintain order and cooperation in society. In their everyday lives, people who have committed wrongdoings may face reprimand or rejection.

A decision to invoke punishment may be implemented by a person who was affected because of such a violation of norms (‘second-party punishment’), or by a neutral person, who nevertheless knows about the norm violation (‘third-party punishment’).

It used to be a known fact that certain brain areas activate in victims of violations as well as in witnesses in response to different forms of social punishment.

However, it was not entirely clear to date which areas were activated in particular.

A typical game for the study of social punishment is the Ultimatum where one test subject makes a decision about how much of the amount given to him or her will be given to another subject.

The participant is free to divide it up as he or she likes, even keeping the entire amount. If the second participant finds the decision unfair, they can punish the offender (for example, reject the proposed division), i.e. execute ‘second party punishment’.

Alternatively, the punishment can be invoked by the third test subject, the witness of the transaction, which will constitute third-party punishment.

Oksana Zinchenko employed activation likelihood estimation (ALE) to analyze data on the brain activity of 383 participants of 17 studies devoted to the subject of social punishment.

The participants were either playing the Ultimatum game or were engaged in other types of strategic games simulating norm-violating events that would result in a social punishment. While the participants were performing these tasks, the researchers applied functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to record their brain activity.

The analysis revealed that such areas of the brain as the bilateral claustrum (upon activation, spreading to the insular cortex), the left superior frontal and right interior frontal gyri were always activated for social punishment tasks.

These areas related to either the salience network or central-executive network of the brain. These neuron systems are responsible for focusing attention, detecting errors, and processing contextual information – all essential components for punishment decision-making.

The right interior frontal gyrus is regarded as a key region in the brain’s ’emotional empathy network’, required for adequate responses to various social interactions.

As for the left superior frontal gyrus, its main function is believed to store information in the working memory during decision-making processes.

This shows brain scans

Brain map of significant ALE values for social punishment. The image is credited to Oksana Zinchenko.

However, the meta-analysis revealed no concordant activation in other brain regions, including those corresponding with the mentalizing network, which operate in a different way with respect to second-party and third-party punishments.

This network is responsible for evaluating a wrongdoer’s intentions. Some regions of this network may be triggered differently, depending on the type of punishment under consideration.

The researchers have yet to perform a more in-depth analysis of the differences in the brain’s responses to various types of social punishment. Meanwhile, we can better understand what mechanisms underlie social control and people’s ability to cooperate by studying the similarities in information processing related to social punishment.

Cooperation is one of the mechanisms supporting the social order in society. The emergence and enforcement of cooperation in groups is one of the most fundamental questions, and many studies shed light on factors which are important to sustain and enforce cooperation in society, such as reciprocity and social punishment as a form of negative reciprocity1,2.

Social punishment is a sanctioning behaviour that occurs when a person with no apparent benefit (or even at a cost) to himself, punishes deviant behaviour that violates existing social norms3. It exists in different forms, such as second-party and third-party punishment which is usually implemented in economic tasks, or as acts of aborting social interaction – social disapproval or rejection.

When the punishment decision is implemented by the person who is affected during the norm violation, it is called “second-party punishment”, otherwise if the person is uninvolved, but knows about the norm violation – it is called “third-party punishment”4. Behavioural economists suggest that third-party punishment may have emerged from second-party punishment5,6. Thus, we could suggest that it would have some shared neural representations.

Recent studies suggest that two main forms of social punishment – second-party and third-party punishment – share some common brain mechanisms, such as involvement of ventral striatum7,8.

However, the studies also report differences in the neural representation for these two forms of punishment: medial prefrontal cortex8,9, right nucleus accumbens and bilateral cingulate7, right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (rDLPFC), left anterior insula and amygdala8. While looking for behavioural implications, Stallen et al.8 showed, using a computational model, that willingness to punish in response to unfairness did not differ between second- and third-party punishment games; however, the severity of punishment is significantly higher for second-party situations.

At the neural level the willingness to punish in both second- and third-party situations was associated with the right anterior insula’s activation8, while the activation of left anterior insula, rDLPFC and left amygdala and was specific for second-party’s willingness to punish. Based on these findings, we expect that tasks related to social punishment will show concordant brain locations in ventral striatum and right anterior insula.

In addition, a recent review by Krueger and Hoffman6 provides us with a neural framework for punishment that could offer some insights regarding the involvement of large-scale networks supporting third-party punishment: the salience network anchored in the anterior cingulate cortex, the mentalizing network – in the temporoparietal junction and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex and central-executive network – in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Recent fMRI study by Civai and colleagues10 suggests that exploration of the similarities in neural processing of second-party and third-party punishment conditions could deep our knowledge in disentangling mechanisms associated with general punishment processes.

However, no extensive review or meta-analytic study has been done on social punishment to address shared brain mechanisms for both second- and third-party punishment: a recent ALE meta-analysis was conducted on social norm representation and norm violations11, revealing the distinct brain regions responsible for these two processes – the anterior cingulate cortex, medial frontal gyrus and insular cortex.

The majority of the experiments testing social punishment focus on punishment in terms of direct material costs alone. However, initially12 this has been done to control individual incentives and test exact theoretical predictions, while laboratory behaviour of meeting and avoiding punishment is similar to the disapproval and its avoidance in real life. Thus, social punishment should be seen more as different forms of social control13, or judgments of disapproval and negative emotional responses to the norm violator14, so the meta-analytic research should follow this logic to better estimate concordant activation to social punishment.

Following this, the search for the current study was constructed to address different terms used to describe social punishment: social punishment, altruistic punishment, costly punishment – so different tasks from the punishment experiments would be included in the study to replicate a mechanism that supports cooperation and enforces social norms.

The initial literature search performed in April, 2017, did not reveal enough studies eligible to be included in the analysis of general brain responses to social punishment. This study is an attempt to address this lack of knowledge and identify the concordant brain activations responsible for the processing of information related to social punishment.

National Research University Higher School of Economicsr
Media Contacts:
Liudmila Mezentseva – National Research University Higher School of Economics
Image Source:
The image is credited to Oksana Zinchenko.

Original Research: Open access
“Brain responses to social punishment: a meta-analysis”. Oksana Zinchenko.
Scientific Reports doi:10.1038/s41598-019-49239-1.


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