A neurocomputational account of the link between social perception and social action

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    These important findings stand out from other similar studies via solid demonstration of behavioural and neural relationships between two helping tasks - one focusing more on social perception, one more on its influence on social behaviour - that were performed more than 300 days apart. The claims however would be enhanced with a larger sample size and greater consideration of the fact that merit and need are signalled via quite different cues - such that differences between them may have multiple origins.

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People selectively help others based on perceptions of their merit or need. Here, we develop a neurocomputational account of how these social perceptions translate into social choice. Using a novel fMRI social perception task, we show that both merit and need perceptions recruited the brain’s social inference network. A behavioral computational model identified two non-exclusive mechanisms underlying variance in social perceptions: a consistent tendency to perceive others as meritorious/needy (bias) and a propensity to sample and integrate normative evidence distinguishing high from low merit/need in other people (sensitivity). Variance in people’s merit (but not need) bias and sensitivity independently predicted distinct aspects of altruism in a social choice task completed months later. An individual’s merit bias predicted context-independent variance in people’s overall other-regard during altruistic choice, biasing people towards prosocial actions. An individual’s merit sensitivity predicted context-sensitive discrimination in generosity towards high and low merit recipients by influencing other-regard and self-regard during altruistic decision-making. This context-sensitive perception-action link was associated with activation in the right temporoparietal junction. Together, these findings point towards stable, biologically based individual differences in perceptual processes related to abstract social concepts like merit, and suggest that these differences may have important behavioral implications for an individual’s tendency toward favoritism or discrimination in social settings.

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  1. eLife assessment

    These important findings stand out from other similar studies via solid demonstration of behavioural and neural relationships between two helping tasks - one focusing more on social perception, one more on its influence on social behaviour - that were performed more than 300 days apart. The claims however would be enhanced with a larger sample size and greater consideration of the fact that merit and need are signalled via quite different cues - such that differences between them may have multiple origins.

  2. Reviewer #1 (Public Review):

    The authors conducted two tasks at 300 days of separation. First, a social perception task, where Ps responded whether a pictured person either deserved or needed help. Second, an altruism task, where Ps are offered monetary allocations for themselves and a partner. Ps decide whether to accept, or a default allocation of 20 dollars each. The partners differed in perceived merit, such that they were highly deserving, undeserving, or unknown. This categorisation was decided on the basis of a prisoner's dilemma game the partner played beforehand. "Need" was also manipulated, by altering the probability that the partner must have their hand in cold water at the end of the experiment and this partner can use the money to buy themselves out. These two tasks were conducted to assess the perception of need/merit in the first instance, and how this relates to social behaviour in the second. fMRI data were collected alongside behavioural.

    The authors present many analyses of behaviour (including DDM results) and fMRI. E.g., they demonstrate that they could decode across the mentalising network whether someone was making a need or deserving judgement vs control judgement but couldn't decode need vs deserving. And that brain responses during merit inferences (merit - control) systematically covaried with participants' merit sensitivity scores in the rTPJ. They also found relationships between behaviour and rTPJ in the altruism task. And that merit sensitivity in the perception task predicted the influence of merit on social behaviour in the altruism task.

    This manuscript represents a sensible model to predict social perceptions and behaviours, and a tidy study design with interesting findings. The introduction introduced the field especially brilliantly for a general audience.

    1. The authors do acknowledge right at the end that these are small samples. This is especially the case for the correlational questions. While the limitation is acknowledged at the end, it is not truly acknowledged in the way that the data are interpreted. I.e. much is concluded from absent relationships, where the likelihood of Type II error is high in this scenario. I suggest that throughout the manuscript, authors play down their conclusions about absence of effects.

    2. I found the results section quite a marathon, and due to its length I started to lose the thread concerning the overarching aims - which had been established so neatly in the introduction. I am unsure whether all of these analyses were necessary for addressing the key questions or whether some were more exploratory. E.g. it's unclear to me what one would have predicted upfront about the decoding analyses.

    3. More specifically, the decoding analyses were intriguing to me. If I understand the authors, they are decoding need vs merit, and need+merit vs control, not the content of these inferences. Do they consider that there is a distributed representation of merit that does not relate to its content but is an abstracted version that applies to all merit judgements? I certainly would not have predicted this and think the analyses raise many questions.

  3. Reviewer #2 (Public Review):

    When people help others is an important psychological and neuroscientific question. It has received much attention from the psychological side, but comparatively less from neuroscience. The paper translates some ideas from a social Psychology domain to neuroscience using a neuroeconomically oriented computational approach. In particular, the paper is concerned with the idea that people help others based on perceptions of merit/deservingness, but also because they require/need help. To this end, the authors conduct two experiments with an overlapping participant pool:

    1. A social perception task in which people see images of people that have previously been rated on merit and need scales by other participants. In a blockwise fashion, people decide whether the depicted person a) deserves help, b) needs help, and c) whether the person uses both hands (== control condition).

    2. In an altruism task, people make costly helping decisions by deciding between giving a certain amount of money to themselves or another person. How much the other person needs and deserves the money is manipulated.

    The authors use a sound and robust computational modelling approach for both tasks using evidence accumulation models. They analyse behavioural data for both tasks, showing that the behaviour is indeed influenced, as expected, by the deservingness and the need of the shown people. Neurally, the authors use a block-wise analysis approach to find differences in activity levels across conditions of the social perception task (there is no fMRI data for the other task). The authors do find large activation clusters in areas related to the theory of mind. Interestingly, they also find that activity in TPJ that relates to the deservingness condition correlates with people's deservingness ratings while they do the task, but also with computational parameters related to helping others in the second task, the one that was conducted many months later. Also, some behavioural parameters correlate across the two tasks, suggesting that how deserving of help others are perceived reflects a relatively stable feature that translates into concrete helping decisions later-on.

    The conclusions of the paper are overall well supported by the data.

    1. I found that the modelling was done very thoroughly for both tasks. Overall, I had the impression that the methods are very solid with many supplementary analyses. The computational modelling is done very well.

    2. A slight caveat, however, regarding this aspect, is that, in my view, the tasks are relatively simplistic, so even the complex computational models do not do as much as they can in the case of more complex paradigms. For example, the bias term in the model seems to correspond to the mean response rate in a very direct way (please correct me if I am wrong).

    3. Related to the simple tasks: The fMRI data is analysed in a simple block-fashion. This is in my view not appropriate to discern the more subtle neural substrates of merit/need-based decision-making or person perception. Correspondingly, the neural activation patterns (merit > control, need > control) are relatively broad and unspecific. They do not seem to differ in the classic theory of mind regions, which are the focus of the analyses.

    4. However, the relationship between neural signal and behavioural merit sensitivity in TPJ is noteworthy.

    5. The latter is even more the case, as the neural signal and aspects of the behaviour are correlated across subjects with the second task that is conducted much later. Such a correlation is very impressive and suggests that the tasks are sensitive for important individual differences in helping perception/behaviour.

    6. That being said, the number of participants in the latter analyses are at the lower end of the number of participants that are these days used for across-participant correlations.

  4. Reviewer #3 (Public Review):

    The paper aims to provide a neurocomputational account of how social perception translates into prosocial behaviors. Participants first completed a novel social perception task during fMRI scanning, in which they were asked to judge the merit or need of people depicted in different situations. Secondly, a separate altruistic choice task was used to examine how the perception of merit and need influences the weights people place on themselves, others, and fairness when deciding to provide help. Finally, a link between perception and action was drawn in those participants who completed both tasks.

    The paper is overall very well written and presented, leaving the reader at ease when describing complex methods and results. The approach used by the author is very compelling, as it combines computational modeling of behavior and neuroimaging data analyses. Despite not being able to comment on the computational model, I find the approach used (to disentangle sensitivity and biases, for merit and need) very well described and derived from previous theoretical work. Results are also clearly described and interpreted.

    My main concern relates to the selection of the social perception task, which to me is the weakest point. Such weakness has been also addressed by the same authors in the limitation section, and related to the fact that merit and need are evaluated by means of very different cues that rely on different cognitive processes (more abstract thinking for merit than need). I wonder whether and how such difference can bias the overall computational model and interpretation of the results (e.g. ideal you vary merit and need to leave all other aspects invariant).

    A second weakness is related to the sample size which is quite small for study 2. I wonder, given that study 2 fRMI data are not analyzed, whether is possible to recover some of the participants' behavioral results, at least the ones excluded because of bad MR image quality.

    Finally, on a theoretical note, I would elaborate more on the distinction of merit and need. These concepts tap into very specific aspects of morality, which I suspect have been widely explored. At the moment I am missing a more elaborate account of this.