There is ample evidence that human primates strive for social contact and experience interactions with conspecifics as intrinsically rewarding. Focusing on gaze behavior as a crucial means of human interaction, this study employed a unique combination of neuroimaging, eye-tracking, and computer-animated virtual agents to assess the neural mechanisms underlying this component of behavior. In the interaction task, participants believed that during each interaction the agent’s gaze behavior could either be controlled by another participant or by a computer program. Their task was to indicate whether they experienced a given interaction as an interaction with another human participant or the computer program based on the agent’s reaction. Unbeknownst to them, the agent was always controlled by a computer to enable a systematic manipulation of gaze reactions by varying the degree to which the agent engaged in joint attention. This allowed creating a tool to distinguish neural activity underlying the subjective experience of being in engaged in social and non-social interaction. In contrast to previous research, this allows measuring neural activity while participants experience active engagement in real-time social interactions. Results demonstrate that gaze-based interactions with a perceived human partner are associated with activity in the ventral striatum, a core component of reward-related neurocircuitry. In contrast, interactions with a computer-driven agent activate attention networks. Comparisons of neural activity during interaction with behaviorally naïve and explicitly cooperative partners demonstrate different temporal dynamics of the reward system and indicate that the mere experience of engagement in social interaction is sufficient to recruit this system.
We thank Neil Macrae and Axel Cleeremans for comments on earlier versions of this manuscript. Furthermore, we are grateful to Dorothé Krug and Barbara Elghahwagi for their assistance in data acquisition. This study was supported by a grant of the Köln Fortune Program of the Medical Faculty at the University of Cologne to L.S. and by a grant “Other Minds” of the German Ministry of Research and Education to K.V.