Social Motivation

Neuroscientist Antonia Hamilton on the practical use of the neuropsychological laboratory research, the difference between static and dynamic image perception, and how motivation can be measured

videos | September 15, 2017

The video is a part of the project British Scientists produced in collaboration between Serious Science and the British Council.

Motivations are things that drive us to do things every day, whether you’re hungry or tired, or thirsty. Social motivation is the idea that people in general have a motivation to engage with other people, to interact with other people. That’s been very important to human survival: people tend not to survive very well on their own. And working with other people, spending time with other people is a pretty important strategy. Social motivation is an idea that has been around for a very long time, but I’ve become particularly interested in it recently, because a social motivation theory of autism has emerged, suggesting that people with autism, who we know have differences in many aspects of social interaction, might also have differences in their motivation to engage with other people. So they might avoid other people, they might not look at other people so much, they might not learn from other people so much.

It’s a very interesting idea but it hasn’t been very easy to test and to be able to actually pin down these kinds of motivational factors. How can you actually put a number on somebody’s motivation to engage with one person or another? If you ask people “What do you like to do on a Saturday night? Do you like to go out to a restaurant with your friends or maybe you’d rather stay at home in your room and play a computer game on your own?”, then the different answers you’ve got to that kind of question might give you some hints about people’s social motivation. But it doesn’t really let us put a number on it and develop a scientific theory of it.

Social neuroscientist Antonia Hamilton on social connotations of imitation, copying silly actions, and mockery
To try and look at this, we’ve been trying to develop some new ways to quantify motivation. We’ve developed for example a task where people can choose between two or three different movies that they want to watch, each movie is just two or three seconds long. So, a social movie might be a movie of a person who looks at the camera and smiles, and they’re quite socially engaging and quite cheerful. Non-social movie might be a movie, which has a little turntable with some household objects sitting on the turntable. The turntable slowly moves around, so you get to see household objects, but they’re not typically very interesting household objects.

What we show to people is different colored boxes, for example, a blue box and an orange box. They know that if they choose the blue box they’ll get to see a social movie, and if they choose the orange box and they’ll get to see a movie of household objects. By looking at the choices people make, we can then try and actually put a number on their social motivation: how motivated are they to see the social thing? We then make life a little bit harder for them, because we put a cost on some of the boxes. So, sometimes if you want to open the blue box, you’ve got to do a sequence of three actions, which is a little bit more boring and time-consuming than doing a single action. So, again by putting these costs on we can get measures of motivation and then try and quantify how big the difference in motivation between different people is.

We can do this in brain scanners and get an idea about how this relates to brain systems for motivation as well. You know a lot about brain systems that are involved in reward for non-social things, where people are getting given food or money in brain scanners. We know a lot of other brain systems that are activated there, but we can see if social rewards, like seeing smiley people, engage some of the same kind of brain systems. We’ve also been able to look at differences in social motivation between people who do have autism and people who don’t.

In the study that we published recently we had a group of adults who have autism and a group of typical adults, and we gave them the social motivation task, and in that task there are three different kinds of movies they could be looking at. They could be looking at movies of a person who looks straight at you and makes eye contact with you, or a movie with a person who looks away from you and doesn’t make eye contact, or a movie of household objects. We find that typical people prefer the eye contact to movies without eye contacts, but the people with autism don’t distinguish. People with autism had a bit of a preference for the people over the household objects. So, it’s not that they avoid all people altogether, but rather maybe there’s something special about eye contact. It is often reported anecdotally that people with autism avoid eye contact, they find eye contact a bit scary, they’re not quite sure what to make of it.

These kinds of studies may provide some of the first concrete evidence, so you can put a number on that and say what’s the difference in terms of how people with autism want to look at eye contact and what use they make of it. We think that understanding how many different kinds of social cues feed into motivation is going to be a really interesting thing in the future. We’re also very interested in looking at eye contact in more detail and finding out what makes people seek eye contact or avoid eye contact, and what the differences are, for example, between people with autism who may avoid eye contact and people with social anxiety disorder who also avoid seeing other people, they’re not motivated to engage with other people, but maybe for some very different reasons. There is an increasing amount of research going on to try to uncover motivations and actually quantify them in a scientific way beyond just talking in general terms.

One of the areas that the work on social motivation leads us to think about more is the idea of gaze and eye contact. Gaze is often used as a measure of motivation, because it’s very simple in experimental terms to show people an image of a face or set of images and track their eyes and see which parts of the image they look at. There are many studies using eye tracking. For example, it’s commonly been shown that if you have a photograph of a face and an eye tracker, an adult or a child looking at that image tend to look at the eyes of a face and the mouth of a face, rather than the hair, or clothing, or the background, whereas somebody with autism may not look at the eyes.
This is a result that’s much more controversial: some studies find they do look at the eyes, some find that they don’t. It’s been a very mixed kind of results. But it seems that increasingly if we use more naturalistic stimuli, so instead of using a still image of a cartoon or something, we use a video a real person who’s talking, then there are much clearer differences between what typical children or adults are motivated to look at and what people with autism are motivated to look at. It is in terms of advancing our methods: the closer our methods in a lab get to being in the real world, the better the results are that we are able to find.

Developmental psychologist Uta Frith on two types of attention, perception of details, and the absolute pitch
There are also some fascinating findings now suggesting that in typical people, if you show them just a photo of a face, then they will easily look at the eyes, but if they’re seeing a video on Skype of another person, how the person is looking back at them, then they won’t look at the eyes that much. So it’ll be quite a different pattern, because when you engage in a genuine social interaction with somebody, then your motivation and the cues they were sending out are quite different. If you’re looking at a still photo, then you can kind of look wherever you like without being embarrassed and just pick up any social information you like. But if you’re looking at another real person, then if you stare at their own too long, that’s going to send weird kind of social cues and might make social interaction breakdowns. So people will be motivated quite differently and behave quite differently in a real interaction compared to what they do some of our typical lab studies, where we’re just using still images on the screen. It’s becoming increasingly apparent in the domain of social neuroscience that we really need to study these real world Interactive contacts in order to get good measures of motivation and good measures of people’s behavior, where what we do in the lab is not a million miles disconnected to what is happening in real world.

To some of the very exciting work that’s going on in the future in the last few years and happening now in terms of understanding social motivation, understanding social interaction is to get beyond some traditional lab methods and make things interactive. So that you’re looking back at somebody who looks back at you, whose gaze responds to you, or you’re measuring things in much richer, more real-world context. By doing this kind of thing when you are taking your science outside the lab and into the real world and into interactive contexts we can then get much better measures of motivation and try to understand how people really are behaving and what motivates them, what drives them in everyday life. We think that’s going to give us a much better way to understand individual differences in behavior not just in autism, but also again in other conditions, like social anxiety disorder, any kind of psychiatric disorders which affect social interaction, of which there’s a great number we need to really be studying social interaction in this interactive context.

The topic of social motivation as a whole is very important for understanding individual differences in social behavior, because each person has their own motivations and their motivations may even be changing throughout the course of the day, throughout the course of the week, throughout the course of their life. There may be very different social motivations in adolescents compared to adulthood and at different stages of adulthood. If we have ways to quantify these kinds of things and have an understanding about where they’re coming from, then that will give us a much better scientific basis, on which to know why people make particular decisions in particular ways, and how we can then help people who are struggling in social situations from a wide variety of social psychiatric conditions, many of which have some kind of motivational aspect. So, that will be the long-term goal of this kind of research.

Ph.D. in neuroscience, a Reader in Social Neuroscience and leader of the Social Neuroscience group at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (UCL).
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