Susceptibility to social pressure following ventromedial prefrontal cortex damage

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Social pressure influences human behavior including risk taking, but the psychological and neural underpinnings of this process are not well understood. We used the human lesion method to probe the role of ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) in resisting adverse social pressure in the presence of risk. Thirty-seven participants (11 with vmPFC damage, 12 with brain damage outside the vmPFC and 14 without brain damage) were tested in driving simulator scenarios requiring left-turn decisions across oncoming traffic with varying time gaps between the oncoming vehicles. Social pressure was applied by a virtual driver who honked aggressively from behind. Participants with vmPFC damage were more likely to select smaller and potentially unsafe gaps under social pressure, while gap selection by the comparison groups did not change under social pressure. Participants with vmPFC damage also showed prolonged elevated skin conductance responses (SCR) under social pressure. Comparison groups showed similar initial elevated SCR, which then declined prior to making left-turn decisions. The findings suggest that the vmPFC plays an important role in resisting explicit and immediately present social pressure with potentially negative consequences. The vmPFC appears to contribute to the regulation of emotional responses and the modulation of decision making to optimize long-term outcomes.

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