Neural correlates of dynamically evolving interpersonal ties predict prosocial behavior

Johannes J. Fahrenfort*, Frans van Winden, Benjamin Pelloux, Mirre Stallen, K. Richard Ridderinkhof

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


There is a growing interest for the determinants of human choice behavior in social settings. Upon initial contact, investment choices in social settings can be inherently risky, as the degree to which the other person will reciprocate is unknown. Nevertheless, people have been shown to exhibit prosocial behavior even in one-shot laboratory settings where all interaction has been taken away. A logical step has been to link such behavior to trait empathy-related neurobiological networks. However, as a social interaction unfolds, the degree of uncertainty with respect to the expected payoff of choice behavior may change as a function of the interaction. Here we attempt to capture this factor. We show that the interpersonal tie one develops with another person during interaction - rather than trait empathy - motivates investment in a public good that is shared with an anonymous interaction partner. We examined how individual differences in trait empathy and interpersonal ties modulate neural responses to imposed monetary sharing. After, but not before interaction in a public good game, sharing prompted activation of neural systems associated with reward (striatum), empathy (anterior insular cortex and anterior cingulate cortex) as well as altruism, and social significance [posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS)]. Although these activations could be linked to both empathy and interpersonal ties, only tie-related pSTS activation predicted prosocial behavior during subsequent interaction, suggesting a neural substrate for keeping track of social relevance.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberArticle 28
JournalFrontiers in Neuroscience
Issue numberMAR
Publication statusPublished - 18 Jun 2012


  • ACC
  • Empathy
  • Insula
  • Interpersonal ties
  • pSTS
  • Public good game
  • Social decision-making
  • Social ties


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