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Social identity shapes social valuation: evidence from prosocial behavior and vicarious reward

Publication Date:
Aug 2017

Authors: Leor M. Hackel, Jamil Zaki, Jay J. Van Bavel

People frequently engage in more prosocial behavior toward members of their own groups, as compared to other groups. Such group-based prosociality may reflect either strategic considerations concerning one's own future outcomes or intrinsic value placed on the outcomes of in-group members. In a functional magnetic resonance imaging experiment, we examined vicarious reward responses to witnessing the monetary gains of in-group and out-group members, as well as prosocial behavior towards both types of individuals. We found that individuals’ investment in their group—a motivational component of social identification—tracked the intensity of their responses in ventral striatum to in-group (vs out-group) members’ rewards, as well as their tendency towards group-based prosociality. Individuals with strong motivational investment in their group preferred rewards for an in-group member, whereas individuals with low investment preferred rewards for an out-group member. These findings suggest that the motivational importance of social identity—beyond mere similarity to group members—influences vicarious reward and prosocial behavior. More broadly, these findings support a theoretical framework in which salient social identities can influence neural representations of subjective value, and suggest that social preferences can best be understood by examining the identity contexts in which they unfold.

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