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Prosocial behaviors are essential for social bonding and cohesion, but the mechanisms that underpin these behaviors are not well understood. Using a combination of computer simulations and brain scans, Dr. Patricia Lockwood and colleagues from both UCL and Oxford have shown in an article published in the journal PNAS that when people learn to benefit others, this learning is underpinned by reinforcement learning signals in a brain region known as the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex (sgACC).

They also found that there is substantial individual variability in people’s ability for prosocial learning. More empathic people learn faster and have more selective responses in the sgACC when benefitting others. The results thus reveal a computational mechanism driving prosocial learning in humans and why empathy and prosocial behavior may be linked. This framework could help to explain reduced empathy and prosocial behavior in people with disorders of social cognition.

A video with Dr. Lockwood can be seen here.

This work has also been featured in the national news: