Why do people follow social norms? – review outlining recent theories and empirical findings.

Norms prescribe how to make decisions in social situations and play a crucial role in sustaining cooperative relationships and coordinating collective action. However, following norms often requires restricting behavior, demanding to curtail selfishness, or suppressing personal goals. This raises the question why people adhere to norms. We review recent theories and empirical findings that aim at explaining why people follow norms even in private, when violations are difficult to detect and are not sanctioned. We discuss theories of norm internalization, social and self-image concerns, and social learning (i.e. preferences conditional on what others do/believe). Finally, we present two behavioral, incentivized tasks that can be used to elicit norms and measure the individual propensity to follow them.

Gross, J. & Vostroknutov, A. (2021). Why do people follow social norms? Curr Opin Psychology 44: 1-6.

New paper on risky helping and its neurobiological correlates.

Helping other people can entail risks for the helper. For example, when treating infectious patients, medical volunteers risk their own health. In such situations, decisions to help should depend on the individual’s valuation of others’ well-being (social preferences) and the degree of personal risk the individual finds acceptable (risk preferences). We investigated how these distinct preferences are psychologically and neurobiologically integrated when helping is risky. We used incentivized decision-making tasks (Study 1; = 292 adults) and manipulated dopamine and norepinephrine levels in the brain by administering methylphenidate, atomoxetine, or a placebo (Study 2; N = 154 adults). We found that social and risk preferences are independent drivers of risky helping. Methylphenidate increased risky helping by selectively altering risk preferences rather than social preferences. Atomoxetine influenced neither risk preferences nor social preferences and did not affect risky helping. This suggests that methylphenidate-altered dopamine concentrations affect helping decisions that entail a risk to the helper.

Gross, J., Faber, N. S., Kappes, A., Nussberger, A. M., Cowen, P. J., Browning, M., … Dreu, C. K. W. de. (2021). When helping is risky: the behavioral and neurobiological tradeoff of social and risk preferences. Psychological Science, 32(11), 1842–1855.

New study on within-group synchronization and inter-group conflict.

Individuals immersed in groups sometimes lose their individuality, take risks they would normally avoid and approach outsiders with unprovoked hostility. In this study, we identified within-group neural synchronization in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (rDLPFC) and the right temporoparietal junction (rTPJ) as a candidate mechanism underlying intergroup hostility. We organized 546 individuals into 91 three-versus-three-person intergroup competitions, induced in-group bonding or no-bonding control manipulation and measured neural activity and within-group synchronization using functional near-infrared spectroscopy. After in-group bonding (versus control), individuals gave more money to in-group members than to out-group members and contributed more money to outcompete their rivals. In-group bonding decreased rDLPFC activity and increased functional connectivity between the rDLPFC and the rTPJ. Especially during the out-group attack, in-group bonding also increased within-group synchronization in both the rDLPFC and the rTPJ, and within-group rDLPFC synchronization positively correlated with intergroup hostility. Within-group synchronized reduction in prefrontal activity might explain how in-group bonding leads to impulsive and collective hostility toward outsiders.

Yang, J., Zhang, H., Ni, J., De Dreu, C.K.W., Ma, Y. (2020)
Within-group Synchronization in the Prefrontal Cortex Associates With Intergroup Conflict. In press.

Prosociality as a foundation for intergroup conflict

Intergroup conflict can be modeled as a two-level game of strategy in which prosociality can take the form of trust and cooperation within groups or between groups. We review recent work, from our own laboratory and that of others, that shows how biological and sociocultural mechanisms that promote prosocial preferences and beliefs create in-group bounded, parochial cooperation, and, sometimes, parochial competition. We show when and how parochial cooperation and competition intensify rather than mitigate intergroup conflict.

Dreu, C. K. W. D., Fariña, A., Gross, J. & Romano, A. Pro-sociality as a Foundation for Intergroup Conflict. (2021). Curr Opin Psychology: 44, 112–116.

Andrea Farina and Micheal Giffin present their work at Society for NeuroEconomics Conference 2019

During the Society for NeuroEconomics conference in Dublin, Oct 4-6, 2019, Andrea Farina gave a talk on her ongoing work on how social preferences are reflected in the cortical thickness of the temporoparietal junction.

Micheal Giffin presented two posters on: “Learning what makes a good offer: A neurocomputational account” and “Neural correlates of expected wealth, competitive success, and risk in economic contests”.


Carsten de Dreu receives Spinoza Prize

Leiden psychologist Carsten de Dreu was presented with the Spinoza Prize by Education Minister Van Engelshoven on 12 September. The award of 2.5 million euros will allow him to continue with his pioneering research on group dynamics.

Not only cognition
De Dreu carries out groundbreaking research on conflicts, negotiation processes, decision-making and creativity within small groups. He has already demonstrated that poor decision-making and group thinking are not just the result of cognitive shortcomings. 

Biological mechanisms
Why do we react in a particular way within a group, and why do we react as a group in a particular way to a competing group? Very little is known about the processes underlying these responses. Carsten de Dreu will use his Spinoza Prize to set up an interdisciplinary research group that aims to develop a model anchored in neurobiology that will shed light on cooperation and conflict within and between groups.

New: Stevin laureates
Every year NWO awards four Spinoza Prizes. This year  a further two Stevin Prizes were awarded, each worth 2.5 million euros. The emphasis with Spinoza Prizes is on innovative fundamental research, and for Stevin Prizes the societal impact of the research is key.  

Carsten de Dreu awarded ERC Advanced Grant for research on conflicts between groups

Professor of Social and Organisational Psychology Carsten de Dreu has been awarded an Advanced Grant by the European Research Council. This subsidy of 2.5 million euros will allow De Dreu to carry out research on the causes of conflicts between groups at both macro- and micro-level.

Conflicts between groups of people are part of life. ‘In the behavioural sciences we already know a lot about inter-group conflicts, particularly about the microprocesses that play a role between or within groups,’ De Dreu says. Historical and geographical research gives us a different picture, in particular that scarcity at macro-level – for example, as a result of climate change or economic decline – can lead to social unrest and war. ‘I want to explore how this pressure at macro-level works its way through to the micro-processes that are going on prior to a conflict between groups of people. Are they independent of one another, or is one caused by the other? And how does that work?’ 

Continuance of a group under pressure
De Dreu’s research project combines knowledge about macro-pressure from climate research and political geography with what we already know about  micro-processes from behavioural sciences. A critical link, according to De Dreu, is stress-bearing capacity. This is stress that a group experiences when the group’s means of existence are under pressure and the group feels its future is under threat. If climate changes or macro-economic developments create stress that exceeds the stress-bearing capacity, a whole range of micro-processes within and between groups is set off that are predicted to incite and escalate conflicts. With this ERC Advanced Grant, De Dreu will be able to test this new theory on the basis of archive research, time series analysis and experimental lab research. 

ERC Advanced Grants
Every year the ERC provides Advanced Grants to prominent experienced scientists, to ‘allow them to research their most creative ideas and to generate findings that will have a major impact on science, society and the economy.’ This year, 269 researchers in Europe  were awarded an ERC Advanced Grant, amounting to a total of 650 million euros. Thirteen of these researchers are from the Netherlands. The projects awarded a subsidy will be carried out at universities and research institutions in 20 countries within the European Research Area. Most of the projects (66 grants) will be carried out in Great Britain; the Netherlands is in sixth place with 16 projects.