How do we trust strangers? The neural correlates of decision making and outcome evaluation of generalized trust

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This study investigates the brain correlates of decision making and outcome evaluation of generalized trust (i.e. trust in unfamiliar social agents)—a core component of social capital which facilitates civic cooperation and economic exchange. We measured 18 (9 male) Chinese participants’ event-related potentials while they played the role of the trustor in a one-shot trust game with unspecified social agents (trustees) allegedly selected from a large representative sample. At the decision-making phase, greater N2 amplitudes were found for trustors’ distrusting decisions compared to trusting decisions, which may reflect greater cognitive control exerted to distrust. Source localization identified the precentral gyrus as one possible neuronal generator of this N2 component. At the outcome evaluation phase, principal components analysis revealed that the so called feedback-related negativity was in fact driven by a reward positivity, which was greater in response to gain feedback compared to loss feedback. This reduced reward positivity following loss feedback may indicate that the absence of reward for trusting decisions was unexpected by the trustor. In addition, we found preliminary evidence suggesting that the decision-making processes may differ between high trustors and low trustors.

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