20 March 2019: Instrumental learning in social interaction

Leor Hackel
Department of Psychology
Rutgers University

People’s social and personal well-being hinges on the ability to form social bonds; in turn, this requires interacting with others and learning whether to spend time with them again in the future. How do we learn about others during such interactions? On one hand, people often learn through positive and negative feedback—a type of learning rooted in reward-based reinforcement. Yet, in social interactions, people often look beyond the immediate reinforcing value of an interaction to encode higher-level social impressions, and these may also impact future choices. Here, I will present a program of research investigating how we learn about people by making choices and experiencing feedback. This work demonstrates that people gravitate not only toward partners who provide rewarding outcomes (e.g., a valued gift), but also to those who display valued social traits (e.g., generosity). Both types of learning involve ventral striatum, while trait-based learning further recruits neural regions associated with social impression updating. Moreover, people use trait knowledge to select social partners in a flexible way across contexts. Finally, I will consider how this model can inform social deficits in disorders such as Borderline Personality Disorder.