Social exclusion is a distressing experience and can lead to both retaliatory and prosocial reactions toward the sources of exclusion. The way people react to social exclusion has been hypothesized to be shaped through chronic exposure to peer rejection. This functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging study examined associations between chronic peer rejection and retaliatory (i.e. punishing) and prosocial (i.e. forgiving) reactions to social exclusion and the neural processes underlying them. Chronically rejected (n = 19) and stably highly accepted adolescents (n = 27) distributed money between themselves and unknown others who previously included or excluded them in a virtual ball-tossing game (Cyberball). Decreasing the excluders' monetary profits (i.e., punishment) was associated with increased activity in the ventral striatum, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (PFC) and parietal cortex in both groups. Compared to stably highly accepted adolescents, chronically rejected adolescents exhibited higher activity in the dorsal striatum and lateral prefrontal cortex - brain regions implicated in cognitive control - when they refrained from punishment and shared their money equally with (i.e. forgave) the excluders. These results provide insights into processes that might underlie the maintenance of peer rejection across development, such as difficulties controlling the urge to retaliate after exclusion.
- Peer status