Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
An important feature of adaptive social behavior is the ability to flexibly modify future actions based on the successes or failures of past experiences. The ventral striatum (VS) occupies a central role in shaping behavior by using feedback to evaluate actions and guide learning. The current studies tested whether feedback indicating the need to update social knowledge would engage the VS, thereby facilitating subsequent learning. We also examined the sensitivity of these striatal signals to the value associated with social group membership. Across two fMRI studies, participants answered questions testing their knowledge about the preferences of personally relevant social groups who were high (in-group) or low (out-group) in social value. Participants received feedback indicating whether their responses were correct or incorrect on a trial-by-trial basis. After scanning, participants were given a surprise memory test examining memory for the different types of feedback. VS activity in response to social feedback correlated with subsequent memory, specifying a role for the VS in encoding and updating social knowledge. This effect was more robust in response to in-group than out-group feedback, indicating that the VS tracks variations in social value. These results provide novel evidence of a neurobiological mechanism adaptively tuned to the motivational relevance of the surrounding social environment that focuses learning efforts on the most valuable social outcomes and triggers adjustments in behavior when necessary.