Conditioned social dominance threat: observation of others’ social dominance biases threat learning

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Abstract

Social groups are organized along dominance hierarchies, which determine how we respond to threats posed by dominant and subordinate others. The persuasive impact of these dominance threats on mental and physical well-being has been well described but it is unknown how dominance rank of others bias our experience and learning in the first place. We introduce a model of conditioned social dominance threat in humans, where the presence of a dominant other is paired with an aversive event. Participants first learned about the dominance rank of others by observing their dyadic confrontations. During subsequent fear learning, the dominant and subordinate others were equally predictive of an aversive consequence (mild electric shock) to the participant. In three separate experiments, we show that participants’ eye-blink startle responses and amygdala reactivity adaptively tracked dominance of others during observation of confrontation. Importantly, during fear learning dominant vs subordinate others elicited stronger and more persistent learned threat responses as measured by physiological arousal and amygdala activity. Our results characterize the neural basis of learning through observing conflicts between others, and how this affects subsequent learning through direct, personal experiences.

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