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Jul. 20, 2021

​​​Why do people prefer their own predictions about how other people are likely to behave? Predictions are based on an amalgamation of stereotypes and preconceived notions that often fall apart when faced with the reality of a person. However, it turns out that when we see someone acting in line with a preconceived prediction, it triggers an effect similar to sex, chocolate, or food, according to a new study by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Harvard University psychology researchers. 

Their findings were published recently in the peer-reviewed journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. ​

BGU's Dr. Niv Reggev and his colleagues from Harvard, Anoushka Chowdhary and Jason P. Mitchell, combined psychological theory with brain scans to determine that having a prediction confirmed triggers a reward center in the brain. Previous studies have discovered that people prefer their predictions to be verified and become upset when they are not. The researchers believe an area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), previously linked to rewarding experiences, contributes to triggering this pleasurable signal and preference. 

The team conducted four experiments that, when taken together, showed that people were even willing to earn less money to have their predictions confirmed. They further showed that the NAcc is similarly active for confirmation of stereotypes and monetary rewards. Moreover, they found this effect whether the social expectations were based on cultural norms or idiosyncratic personal sources. 

The first study found increased activity in the brain reward center when culturally based gender stereotypes were confirmed. The second study confirmed people were willing to forego higher monetary gains to have their gender stereotypes validated. The third study, which asked participants to assess information relating to former US presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, confirmed that even when the expectation was based on personal, idiosyncratic information, the effect persisted. Finally, the fourth study mirrored the second study and confirmed that people were willing to forego higher monetary gain to have their predictions confirmed. 

"In their daily lives, people encounter numerous examples of stereotype-conforming information, be it from social media, advertisement, or other people. Our research suggests that people experience a reward-like effect from each such encounter, suggesting one explanation why it is so hard to change stereotypes and other forms of social expectations. This insight may prove useful in dealing with prejudice, discrimination, and increased polarization in society," says Dr. Reggev, a member of BGU's Department of Psychology and Zlotowski Center for Neuroscience. 

The study was supported by the Israel Science Foundation (Grant No. 79/18) and the Yad Ha'Nadiv (Rothschild) Foundation.

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