The Neuroscience of Social Decision-Making

Posted: 8 Dec 2010

See all articles by James K. Rilling

James K. Rilling

Emory University - Department of Anthropology

Alan G. Sanfey

University of Arizona

Date Written: January 2011


Given that we live in highly complex social environments, many of our most important decisions are made in the context of social interactions. Simple but sophisticated tasks from a branch of experimental economics known as game theory have been used to study social decision-making in the laboratory setting, and a variety of neuroscience methods have been used to probe the underlying neural systems. This approach is informing our knowledge of the neural mechanisms that support decisions about trust, reciprocity, altruism, fairness, revenge, social punishment, social norm conformity, social learning, and competition. Neural systems involved in reward and reinforcement, pain and punishment, mentalizing, delaying gratification, and emotion regulation are commonly recruited for social decisions. This review also highlights the role of the prefrontal cortex in prudent social decision-making, at least when social environments are relatively stable. In addition, recent progress has been made in understanding the neural bases of individual variation in social decision-making.

Suggested Citation

Rilling, James K. and Sanfey, Alan G., The Neuroscience of Social Decision-Making (January 2011). Annual Review of Psychology, Vol. 62, pp. 23-48, 2011, Available at SSRN: or

James K. Rilling (Contact Author)

Emory University - Department of Anthropology ( email )

201 Dowman Drive
Atlanta, GA 30322
United States

Alan G. Sanfey

University of Arizona ( email )

Department of History
Tucson, AZ 85721
United States

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