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Social neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field devoted to understanding how biological systems implement social processes and behavior, and to using biological concepts and methods to inform and refine theories of social processes and behavior.

Humans are fundamentally a social species, rather than individualists. As a social species, Homo sapiens create emergent organizations beyond the individual - structures that range from dyads, families, and groups to cities, civilizations, and cultures. These emergent structures evolved hand in hand with neural and hormonal mechanisms to support them because the consequent social behaviors helped these organisms survive, reproduce, and care for offspring sufficiently long that they too survived to reproduce.

The term "social neuroscience" can be traced to an article by John Cacioppo and Gary Berntson, published in the American Psychologist in 1992.[1] Cacioppo and Berntson are considered as the legitimate fathers of Social Neuroscience. Still a young field, social neuroscience is closely related to affective neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience, focusing on how the brain mediates social interactions.



Social neuroscience investigates the biological mechanisms that underlie social processes and behavior, widely considered one of the major problem areas for the neurosciences in the 21st century, and applies concepts and methods of biology to develop theories of social processes and behavior in the social and behavioral sciences. Social neuroscience capitalizes on biological concepts and methods to inform and refine theories of social behavior, and it uses social and behavioral constructs and data to inform and refine theories of neural organization and function.[2]

Throughout most of the 20th century, social and biological explanations were widely viewed as incompatible. But advances in recent years have led to the development of a new approach synthesized from the social and biological sciences. The new field of social neuroscience emphasizes the complementary relationship between the different levels of organization spanning the social and biological domains (e.g., molecular, cellular, system, person, relational, collective, societal) and the use of multi-level analyses to foster understanding of the mechanisms underlying the human mind and behavior.


A variety of techniques are used in social neuroscience to investigate the confluence of neural and social processes, including Functional MRI, Transcranial magnetic stimulation, Event-related potentials, Electrocardiograms, Electromyograms, Galvanic skin response, and studies of Focal Brain Lesion patients.

Neurobiology of Persuasion

Attitudes and persuasion are among the central issues of social behavior. One of the classic questions is when are attitudes a predictor of behavior. Previous research suggested that selective activation of left prefrontal cortex might increase the likelihood that an attitude would predict a relevant behavior. Using lateral attentional manipulation, this was supported. [3]

An earlier article showed that EEG measures of anterior prefrontal asymmetry might be a predictor of persuasion. Research participants were presented with arguments that favored and arguments that opposed the attitudes they already held. Those whose brain was more active in left prefrontal areas said that they paid the most attention to statements with which they agreed while those with a more active right prefrontal area said that they paid attention to statements that disagreed. [4] This is an example of defensive repression, the avoidance or forgetting of unpleasant information. Research has shown that the trait of defensive repression is related to relative left prefrontal activation. [5] In addition, when pleasant or unpleasant words, probably analogous to agreement or disagreement, were seen incidental to the main task, an fMRI scan showed preferential left prefrontal activation to the pleasant words [6]

One way therefore to increase persuasion would seem to be to selectively activate the right prefrontal cortex. This is easily done by monaural stimulation to the contralateral ear. The effect apparently depends on selective attention rather than merely the source of stimulation. This manipulation had the expected outcome: more persuasion for messages coming from the left [7]

See also

Social Neuroscience Journals

  • Social Neuroscience - The first journal dedicated to social neuroscience, inaugural issue published March 2006.
  • Psychophysiology has published several articles dealing with Social Neuroscience.

Key readings

  • Brune, M., Ribbert, H., & Schiefenhovel, W. (2003). The social brain: evolution and pathology. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons Ltd.
  • Cacioppo, J.T. (2002). Social neuroscience: Understanding the pieces fosters understanding the whole and vice versa. American Psychologist, 57, 819-831.
  • Cacioppo, J. T., & Berntson, G. G. (1992). Social psychological contributions to the decade of the brain: Doctrine of multilevel analysis. American Psychologist, 47, 1019-1028.
  • Cacioppo, J.T., Berntson, G.G., Sheridan, J.F., & McClintock, M.K. (2000). Multilevel integrative analyses of human behavior: social neuroscience and the complementing nature of social and biological approaches. Psychological Bulletin, 126, 829-843.
  • Cacioppo, John T.; Penny S. Visser, Cynthia L. Pickett (eds.) (2005). Social Neuroscience: People Thinking about Thinking People. MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-03335-6.  
  • Goleman, Daniel (2006). Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. Bantam Books. ISBN 0553803522.  
  • Harmon-Jones, E.; P. Winkielman (2007). Social Neuroscience: Integrating Biological and Psychological Explanations of Social Behavior. Guilford Press. ISBN 978-1-59385-404-1.  a
  • van Lange, P.A.M. (2006). Bridging social psychology: benefits of transdisciplinary Approaches. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Wolpert, D. & Frith, C. (2004). The Neuroscience of Social Interactions: Decoding, Influencing, and Imitating the Actions of Others. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


  1. ^ Cacioppo, J. T., & Berntson, G. G. (1992). Social psychological contributions to the decade of the brain: Doctrine of multilevel analysis. American Psychologist, 47, 1019-1028.
  2. ^ Cacioppo, J.T. et al. (2007). Social neuroscience: progress and implications for mental health. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2, 99-123.
  3. ^ Drake, R. A., & Sobrero, A. P. (1987). Lateral orientation effects upon trait behavior and attitude behavior consistency. Journal of Social Psychology, 127, 639-651.
  4. ^ Cacioppo, J. T., Petty, R. E., & Quintanar, L. R. (1982). Individual differences in relative hemispheric alpha abundance and cognitive responses to persuasive communications. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 43, 623-636.
  5. ^ Tomarken, A. J., & Davidson, R. J. (1994). Frontal brain activity in repressors and nonrepressors. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 103, 339-349.
  6. ^ Herrington, J. D., Mohanty, A., Koven, N. S., Fisher, J. E., Stewart, J. L., Banich, M. T., et al. (2005). Emotion-modulated performance and activity in left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Emotion, 5, 200-207.
  7. ^ Drake, R. A., & Bingham, B. R. (1985). Induced lateral orientation and persuasibility. Brain and Cognition, 4, 156-164.

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