Saturday, November 15, 2008

Social Neuroscience: Integrating Biological and Psychological Explanations of Social Behavior

A review of an important new book. There needs to be more recognition by the neuroscience community that brains do not exist in a vacuum -- they are culturally and socially embedded entities that reflect that reality in their function.

Social Neuroscience: Integrating Biological and Psychological Explanations of Social Behavior

Harmon-Jones, Eddie and Winkielman, Piotr (Eds.)
Guilford Press: London, 2008
ISBN 159385644X (pb)

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Reviewed by Adolfo López-Paredes
INSISOC - University of Valladolid

Cover of book That neuroscience can benefit Economics or Political Science has been firstly introduced by Camerer et al (2005), Singer and Fehr (2005), Fehr and Camerer (2007) and Hibbing and Smith (2007). They have showed the way social scientists in general and the social simulation community in particular can benefit by combining the biological approach with social behavior. The new methods used in neuroscience provide the opportunity to understand the mechanisms that underlie social behavior, combining social and biological approaches.

Social Neuroscience emerges as a new field of research that editors of the reviewed volume define as "an integrative field that examines how nervous (central and peripheral), endocrine and immune systems are involved in sociocultural processes". This volume is composed of a brief introduction to social neuroscience from editors (chapter 1), and 21 papers that have been grouped in five subsections: emotion processes; motivation processes; attitudes and social cognition; person perception, stereotyping and prejudice; and interpersonal relationships. Although the book is not about neuroscience methods, most of them are well represented (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Event-related brain potential methods, etc.) and the beginner receives a general overview of them that will be necessary to understand experiments. For those interested in planning and design of laboratory experiments beyond the choice of methods, it is convenient to remark the Iacobini's advise on ecological validity of laboratory tasks performed by subjects.

Authors were encouraged by editors to specify the theoretical contributions adopting the social neuroscience approach, and most papers fit this goal, although it happens that interesting results (for social scientists) from experimental sessions are not summarized in the conclusions subsection.

Contributing authors recognize that social neuroscience is at an early stage of development, and that there is a long way to run and many opportunities will emerge for social sciences research. Notwithstanding, in this volume, some issues that should be useful for social scientist are models of perception-motivational-control-regulatory processes and biological-social mechanisms that can be overlapped to explain complex human decisions. In this sense, the relevance of context (papers from Lieberman and Iacobini); rewards (by Knutson and Wimmer) and social bonds (by Carter) as motivational processes; and studies on empathy (by Decety), processes related to emotions (Jennifer Beer, Heberlein and Adolphs, Norris and Cacioppo, Van Honk and Schutter, Oschner, Harmon-Jones) and social encoding (by Ito et al) are some of those that a priori can result exciting for JASSS readers.

The main purpose of this review is to identify and outline those issues that could succeed to extend previous research in social simulation and open the window to explore classical problems. To be clear in such exposition, in the next paragraphs each contributing paper is summarized explaining the main conclusions (social and biological) for the JASSS reader. Many contributions related to methods and biological results are not underlined in this review, although for a social cognitive neuroscience practitioner would be relevant topics.

Jennifer Beer focuses on understanding the ways in which emotion and social cognition interact. She studies the role of orbitofrontal cortex in emotion-cognition interactions for social adjustment. After a careful review of previous research, she explains undertaken experiments to monitor emotional influences on decision making. Heberlein and Adolphs review the evidence for simulation-based models of emotion recognition and the role played by amygdale, insula (a section of cortex) and right somatosensory cortex. There is evidence that, to recognize emotions in others, observers must simulate aspects of the specific emotion in the person being observed. They conclude the minimum components to produce a complete model of the neural processes underlying emotion recognition, and some considerations that make difficult at this stage to finish that model. Kudielka, Hellhammer and Kirschbaum focus on describing the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) and reviewing the literature on recent related research (more than 4000 sessions in the last decade) to study the hormone cortisol in the lab. Authors describe the impact of some variables as gender, age, social support, social hierarchy and genetic factors to identify the sources of intra-interindividual differences in the net hormone output, as well as the time course of hormone secretion.

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