Sci is posting over at SciAm today to help promote the new area of the SciAm Blogs: SciAm MIND! It's great to see so much interest placed on all things brain, and I look forward to posting as part of the group. Make sure to check out all of the new bloggers, and of course all of us, under the SciAm MIND tag!

I think we can all say that we prefer praise. I'd much rather be told that I was peerless and perspicacious than that I was a pathetic peripatetic.

But whether we get praise or censure, as social humans we receive a lot of social feedback. People are always telling us, either directly or indirectly, how we are 'doing' socially, and how we are perceived.

But getting that information, and what you do with it, are very different things indeed. And while we all like to think that we see our own good and bad points for what they are and take in criticism as well as praise….well, it turns out we’re a little biased in our own favor.

Korn et al. “Positively Biased Processing of Self-Relevant Social Feedback” Journal of Neuroscience, 2012.

When most studies want to look at things like social feedback or social processing, they often do fMRI studies with “games” that you play with other “people” (who aren’t real people, just a computer, but you don’t know that). But this has several disadvantages. First, you can’t rate people on various personality traits, you only know if you get socially accepted or rejected. And secondly, you can’t really get good social feedback from a computer.

So to look at social feedback, the authors of this study had people meet each other in PERSON. On the first day, a group of five people who had never met before met in the lab to play an hour or so of Monopoly (hopefully if you’re only in the first hour you avoid a lot of the social rancor that I associate with my family’s Monopoly games).


After that game, participants were asked to rate three of the other people they played with (leaving one person unrated), on 40 positive and 40 negative personality traits, from 1 (this doesn’t apply to this person at all) to 8 (this always applies to this person). The traits ranged all over and included things like “lazy”, “intelligent”, “whiny”, “catty”, and “respectful”. All negative traits were REVERSE coded, so that in all cases a higher score was a better thing. So if you ranked a 7 for intelligent, that’s good, but if you ranked a 7 for whiny, it’s ALSO good, and meant you were LESS whiny. This makes the quick responses to a task easier.

When the person came back to the lab the next day, they were placed in an fMRI, and asked how they would rate themselves. For example, on a scale of 1-8, would you rate yourself as “polite”? Then they received back the feedback that other people said about them. Maybe they said you were VERY polite, that’s good! Then, after the fMRI, they asked you to rate yourself again, how polite do you think you are? The participants were also asked to rate the people they had not rated on the previous day, asked how polite they thought Joe was, and then told how polite other people thought he was.

But here’s the kicker. When the participants received feedback…it wasn’t real. The number ratings they got were randomly generated, to give even distributions of positive and negative traits (I really hope no one was too scarred by the experience and ended up thinking they were catty!).

It turns out the participants thought pretty highly of themselves, generally ranking themselves higher on positive traits, and lower on negative traits, than other people.

And when given feedback and asked to update their opinions of themselves, the participants definitely preferred compliments, updating their opinions of themselves more when they received positive feedback, and updating their opinions less for negative (undesireable) feedback (and, somewhat amusingly, one of the personality traits asked about was “honest”. Know thyself). But they ALSO updated their opinions of other people more based on positive feedback than negative. So they liked self-compliments, but also liked thinking better of other people.

These behavioral results were correlated with the fMRI data taken during the first self rating.

You can tell that we really do like hearing nice things about ourselves. The authors found increases in activity in reward-related areas of the brain (the striatum) when people received positive social feedback. But when they received negative social feedback, the signals went down. The truth hurts. There were also correlations between social feedback and areas of the cortex associated with things like “mentalizing”, thinking of and evaluating yourself and comparing yourself to others.

Of course, all of the fMRI data comes with its usual caveats. Keep in mind that “activity” in the brain doesn’t say what KIND of activity and that all of this is a change relative to the constant high levels of activity occurring elsewhere, the visual cortex activity of looking at the screen, the language processing of assessing the feedback, and areas related to judging others, not to mention other areas like those related to memory (for remember how someone was acting the day before), and things like movement. This means that there are a lot of confounds, particularly with the areas associated with “mentalizing”, which might overlap with judgement of others and processing of the input.

But it does show that we have different ways of processing social feedback, and of comparing ourselves to others. And that, no matter what, we’d always like to see ourselves in a positive light.

Korn, C., Prehn, K., Park, S., Walter, H., & Heekeren, H. (2012). Positively Biased Processing of Self-Relevant Social Feedback Journal of Neuroscience, 32 (47), 16832-16844 DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3016-12.2012