Planning a trip? Working logic derivations for LSAT prep? Playing chess? All are activities that involve strategic, or “forward thinking” about what steps will achieve the goal. But what about social activities, like bargaining? Do we use forward thinking in social situations with an eye toward such control? According to researchers at the Center for Computational Psychiatry at Mount Sinai, and the Uslan National Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea, the answer is yes.
In a study led by Soojung Na and Dongil Chung, researchers wanted to know if people use forward thinking to exert control over, or influence others. Previous research has suggested both an association between the feeling of control over one’s environment and wellbeing, and an association between a lack of such control and poor mental health. Researchers in the present study wanted to understand the neurocomputational mechanisms that underlie the capacity for exerting — or attempting to exert — social control.
The team used fMRI to scan the brains of volunteers as they played various versions of the Ultimatum Game, in which an amount of money is to be split between a proposer and a responder. The proposer offers a certain amount, and the responder must take or leave the offer. The subsequent offer depends on the initial response.
In one version of the game, rules dictated what would happen when a responder accepted or rejected the initial offer. In another, no rules controlled the subsequent offers. Participants also played the game with a computer, rather than another subject, and online with over 1,000 other subjects.
Researchers found that participants consistently used forward thinking. That is, participants used forward thinking regardless of whether the game was predictable or unpredictable, or played with another subject or computer.
In addition, participants consistently felt a sense of control regardless of the fact that some versions of the game (with another participant or a computer) were uncontrollable — that is, unpredictable. The feeling of control was higher when the game was predictable, but, "These results highlight the complicated interplay between the actual controllability of social situations and our feelings of control," explained Xiaosi Gu, PhD, Director of the Center for Computational Psychiatry at Mount Sinai. A lack of control, in other words, did not eradicate the feeling of control.
The fMRI results suggested the choices participants made involved the decision-making center of the brain involved in forward thinking — the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. "In the future,” Dr. Gu notes, “we plan to explore how problems in the brain's forward thinking app may play [a] role in depression, schizophrenia and other neuropsychiatric disorders."
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