Smile! Social Reward Drives Attention

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Human social behavior is fine-tuned by interactions between individuals and their environments. Here we show that social motivation plays an important role in this process. Using a novel manipulation of social reward that included elements of real-life social exchanges, we demonstrate the emergence of attentional orienting for coincidental spatial associations that received positive social reward. After an interaction with the experimenter, participants completed a computerized task in which they received positive, negative, or no social reward for their performance to spatially congruent, spatially incongruent, and neutral cue–target pairings, respectively. Even though cue–target spatial correspondences remained at chance, attentional benefits emerged and persisted a day later for targets that received positive social reward. Our data further revealed that participants’ level of social competence, as measured by the Autism-Spectrum Quotient scale, was predictably related to the magnitude of their reward-driven attentional benefits. No attentional effects emerged when the social interaction and social reward manipulations were removed. These results show that motivational incentives available during social exchanges affect later individual cognitive functioning, providing one of the first insights into why seemingly ambiguous social signals produce reliable and persistent attentional effects.

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