Neuroscience, Social

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Neuroscience, Social


Social neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field that considers the mutual implications of neuroscience and social science for understanding of social and affective aspects of behavior. Specifically, social neuroscience determines the biological mechanisms underlying social processes and behavior, considered by many to be one of the major problem areas for the neurosciences in the twenty-first century, and uses biological concepts and methods to develop and refine theories of social processes and behavior in the social and behavioral sciences.

Contemporary work has demonstrated that neuroscientific theory and methods can constrain and inspire hypotheses, foster experimental tests of otherwise indistinguishable theoretical explanations, and increase the comprehensiveness and relevance of behavioral theories. Several principles from social neuroscience suggest that understanding social behavior requires the joint consideration of social, cognitive, and biological levels of analysis in an integrated fashion. The principle of multiple determinism, for instance, specifies that a target event specified at one level of organization, but especially at molar or abstract (e.g., social) levels of organization, can have multiple antecedents within or across levels of organization. For instance, one might consume a considerable quantity of pizza in an effort to either remedy a low blood-sugar condition (biological determinant) or win a food-eating contest (social determinant).

The principle of nonadditive determinism specifies that properties of the whole are not always readily predictable from the properties of the parts. In an illustrative study, the behavior of nonhuman primates was examined following the administration of either an amphetamine or a placebo. No clear pattern emerged until each primates position in the social hierarchy was considered. When this social factor was taken into account, the amphetamine was found to increase dominant behavior in primates high in the social hierarchy and to increase submissive behavior in primates low in the social hierarchy. A strictly physiological (or social) analysis, regardless of the sophistication of the measurement technology, may not have unraveled the orderly relationship that existed.

Finally, the principle of reciprocal determinism specifies that there can be mutual influences between microscopic (e.g., biological) and macroscopic (e.g., social) factors in determining behavior. For example, not only has the level of testosterone in nonhuman male primates been shown to promote sexual behavior, but also the availability of receptive females influences the level of testosterone. That is, the effects of social and biological processes can be reciprocal.

One important implication of these principles is that comprehensive accounts of human behavior cannot be achieved if the biological, cognitive, or social level of organization is considered unnecessary or irrelevant.

In sum, throughout most of the twentieth century social and biological explanations were cast as incompatible. Advances in recent years have led to the development of a new view synthesized from the social and biological sciences. The new field of social neuroscience emphasizes the complementary nature of the different levels of organization spanning the social and biological domains (e.g., molecular, cellular, system, person, relational, collective, societal) and demonstrates how multilevel analyses can foster understanding of the mechanisms underlying the human mind and behavior.

SEE ALSO Determinism, Nonadditive


Cacioppo, John T. 2002. Social Neuroscience: Understanding the Pieces Fosters Understanding the Whole and Vice Versa. American Psychologist 57: 819830.

John T. Cacioppo

Gary G. Berntson