The nucleus accumbens is involved in both the pursuit of social reward and the avoidance of social punishment

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Human social motivation is characterized by the pursuit of social reward and the avoidance of social punishment. The ventral striatum/nucleus accumbens (VS/Nacc), in particular, has been implicated in the reward component of social motivation, i.e., the ‘wanting’ of social incentives like approval. However, it is unclear to what extent the VS/Nacc is involved in avoiding social punishment like disapproval, an intrinsically pleasant outcome. Thus, we conducted an event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study using a social incentive delay task with dynamic video stimuli instead of static pictures as social incentives in order to examine participants' motivation for social reward gain and social punishment avoidance. As predicted, the anticipation of avoidable social punishment (i.e., disapproval) recruited the VS/Nacc in a manner that was similar to VS/Nacc activation observed during the anticipation of social reward gain (i.e., approval). Stronger VS/Nacc activity was accompanied by faster reaction times of the participants to obtain those desired outcomes. This data support the assumption that dynamic social incentives elicit robust VS/Nacc activity, which likely reflects motivation to obtain social reward and to avoid social punishment. Clinical implications regarding the involvement of the VS/Nacc in social motivation dysfunction in autism and social phobia are discussed.

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