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The Mentalizing Network Orchestrates the Impact of Parochial Altruism on Social Norm Enforcement

Type of publication Peer-reviewed
Publikationsform Original article (peer-reviewed)
Author Fehr Ernst, Baumgartner T. et al.,
Project Vertrauen verstehen. Grundlagen, Formen und Grenzen des Vertrauens
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Original article (peer-reviewed)

Journal Human Brain Mapping
Volume (Issue) 33(6)
Page(s) 1452 - 1469
Title of proceedings Human Brain Mapping
DOI 10.1002/hbm.21298

Open Access


Parochial altruism – a preference for altruistic behavior towards ingroup members and mistrust or hostility towards outgroup members—is a pervasive feature in human society and strongly shapes the enforcement of social norms. Since the uniqueness of human society critically depends on the enforcement of norms, the understanding of the neural circuitry of the impact of parochial altruism on social norm enforcement is key, but unexplored. To fill this gap, we measured brain activity with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while subjects had the opportunity to punish ingroup members and outgroup members for violating social norms. Findings revealed that subjects' strong punishment of defecting outgroup members is associated with increased activity in a functionally connected network involved in sanction-related decisions (right orbitofrontal gyrus, right lateral prefrontal cortex, right dorsal caudatus). Moreover, the stronger the connectivity in this network, the more outgroup members are punished. In contrast, the much weaker punishment of ingroup members who committed the very same norm violation is associated with increased activity and connectivity in the mentalizing-network (dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, bilateral temporo-parietal junction), as if subjects tried to understand or justify ingroup members' behavior. Finally, connectivity analyses between the two networks suggest that the mentalizing-network modulates punishment by affecting the activity in the right orbitofrontal gyrus and right lateral prefrontal cortex, notably in the same areas showing enhanced activity and connectivity whenever third-parties strongly punished defecting outgroup members. Hum Brain Mapp, 2011. © 2011 Wiley-Liss, Inc.