Scientific Understanding of Consciousness
Consciousness as an Emergent Property of Thalamocortical Activity

Cognitive Mechanisms of Following Advice




PLoS Biology, June 21, 2011

Biele G, Rieskamp J, Krugel LK, Heekeren HR (2011) The Neural Basis of Following Advice. PLoS Biol 9(6): e1001089. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001089

The Neural Basis of Following Advice

Guido Biele, Jörg Rieskamp, Lea K. Kruge, Hauke R. Heekeren

1 Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin, Germany,

2 Center for the Study of Human Cognition, Department of Psychology, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway,

3 Department of Education and Psychology, Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin, Germany,

4 Department of Psychology, University of Basel, Basel, Switzerland,

5 Department of Neurology, Charité University Medicine Berlin, Berlin, Germany


Learning by following explicit advice is fundamental for human cultural evolution, yet the neurobiology of adaptive social learning is largely unknown. Here, we used simulations to analyze the adaptive value of social learning mechanisms, computational modeling of behavioral data to describe cognitive mechanisms involved in social learning, and model-based functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to identify the neurobiological basis of following advice. One-time advice received before learning had a sustained influence on people's learning processes. This was best explained by social learning mechanisms implementing a more positive evaluation of the outcomes from recommended options. Computer simulations showed that this “outcome-bonus” accumulates more rewards than an alternative mechanism implementing higher initial reward expectation for recommended options. fMRI results revealed a neural outcome-bonus signal in the septal area and the left caudate. This neural signal coded rewards in the absence of advice, and crucially, it signaled greater positive rewards for positive and negative feedback after recommended rather than after non-recommended choices. Hence, our results indicate that following advice is intrinsically rewarding. A positive correlation between the model's outcome-bonus parameter and amygdala activity after positive feedback directly relates the computational model to brain activity. These results advance the understanding of social learning by providing a neurobiological account for adaptive learning from advice.

Learning by following advice is fundamental for human cultural evolution. Yet it is largely unknown how the brain implements advice-taking in order to maximize rewards. Here, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and behavioral experiments to study how people use one-off advice. We find that advice had a sustained effect on choices and modulated learning in two ways. First, participants initially assumed that the recommended option was most beneficial. Second, and more importantly, gains and losses obtained after following advice received an “outcome-bonus,” in which they were evaluated more positively than after not following advice. In other words, following advice was in general intrinsically rewarding. Computer simulations showed that the outcome-bonus is adaptive, because it benefits from good advice and limits the effect of bad advice. The fMRI analysis revealed a neural outcome-bonus signal in the septal area and left caudate head, structures previously implicated in trust and reward based learning. Participants with greater outcome-bonuses showed a greater gain-signal increase after following advice in the amygdala, a structure implicated in processing emotions and social information. In sum, these results suggest that decision makers adaptively combine advice and individual learning with a social learning mechanism in which advice modulates the neural reward response.

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