Short review: Social norms violations (Berthoz et al.)

Short review:

S. Berthoz, J.L. Armony, R.J.R. Blair, R.J. Dolan, An fMRI study of intentional and unintentional (embarassing) violations of social norms, Brain, 2002, Vol. 125, pp. 1696-1708.

  1. Summary

(a)    Theses:

Thesis 1: Brain regions involved in the representation of the mental state of others (medial prefrontal cortex, temporo-parietal regions, temporal lobe) are activated during situations of violation of social norms.

Thesis 2: Processing social violations involves structures (lateral orbitofrontal and medial prefrontal cortices) associated with the representation of aversive emotional reactions in others, particularly others’ anger.

(b)   Experimental setting:

Experiment 1: Four types of a personal (the story protagonist is ‘you’) and impersonal verbal material (the story protagonist is a character) were presented to the participants: (1) description of normal behaviour; (2) description of an embarassing situation for the story protagonist (unintentional transgression of the social norm); (3) description of a situation where the story protagonist’s behaviour is a violation of social norms (intentional transgression); (4) sentences of ‘unrelated words’. The participants were asked to rate: (1) how embarassing they thought the situation is; (2) how inappropriate they thought the behaviour is; (3) how funny they thought the story is. No difference between the personal and impersonal ratings was found.

Experiment 2: Normal stories were used as a reference condition to measure the activity of brain regions. Both violation of social norms and embarassing stories activated left medial, middle and inferior prefrontal gyrus, left orbitofrontal cortex, anterior and middle temporal lobe.

  1. Critical comments

1)      The results doesn’t show, were there any differences in brain activity, when participants were dealing with personal and impersonal stories. This seems to be important because we can assume that personal violations of the social norms (both intentional and unintentional) can trigger increased activity in brain regions involved with representation of aversive emotional reactions in others as compared to the impersonal violations.

2)      The personal/impersonal distinction of the stories is questionable as experimental scenarios seem to describe situations where the action of the protagonist is rather voluntary or involuntary. Intentionality is only an element of voluntariness (others being: ability to recognize the important chararacteristics of the action, ability to control the action).

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