Prediction errors also appear to be involved in another common human social behavior, when we find out whether another person likes us or not. In a recent study by Rebecca Jones and colleagues from Cornell University, participants learned how often unknown peers wanted to interact with them by seeing how often these peers sent them “facebook-like” notes. Prediction errors captured the difference between participants’ expectation of receiving a note and actually getting one. Similar to the Behrens study above, prediction error signals were related to brain activity commonly involved in learning about how likely non-social outcomes such as money are to be experienced.
How can prediction errors help us to understand optimism? Tali Sharot, Ray Dolan and I conducted a study at University College London to investigate how people maintain their optimistic predictions. Participants estimated their likelihood of experiencing 80 negative events including various diseases and criminal acts. They then saw the statistical likelihoods of these events happening to an average person of their age. We then measured how much participants updated their predictions by having them re-estimate their personal likelihoods of experiencing these 80 adverse life events. When given good news -- i.e., a bad outcome is not as likely as you thought -- people responded strongly. But given bad news, they tended to change their prediction only a little bit. Importantly, distinct brain regions seemed to be related to prediction errors for good and bad news about the future. Interestingly, the more optimistic a participant was the less efficiently one of these regions coded for undesirable information. Thus, the bias in how errors are processed in the brain can account for the tendency to maintain rose-colored views.
Still, a word of caution to avoid being too optimistic is warranted. Neuroscience won’t tell us anytime soon everything that’s going on in the mind of a bride walking down the aisle.
Christoph W. Korn is a third year PhD student at the Freie Universität Berlin and the Berlin School of Mind and Brain. He studies how the human brain integrates information that is relevant in social settings.
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