Social structure learning in human anterior insula

  1. Tatiana Lau
  2. Samuel J Gershman
  3. Mina Cikara  Is a corresponding author
  1. Royal Holloway, University of London, United Kingdom
  2. Harvard University, United States


Humans form social coalitions in every society, yet we know little about how we learn and represent social group boundaries. Here we derive predictions from a computational model of latent structure learning to move beyond explicit category labels and interpersonal, or dyadic similarity as the sole inputs to social group representations. Using a model-based analysis of functional neuroimaging data, we find that separate areas correlate with dyadic similarity and latent structure learning. Trial-by-trial estimates of 'allyship' based on dyadic similarity between participants and each agent recruited medial prefrontal cortex/pregenual anterior cingulate (pgACC). Latent social group structure-based allyship estimates, in contrast, recruited right anterior insula (rAI). Variability in the brain signal from rAI improved prediction of variability in ally-choice behavior, whereas variability from the pgACC did not. These results provide novel insights into the psychological and neural mechanisms by which people learn to distinguish 'us' from 'them'.

Data availability

All materials, data, and analyses can be accessed on the OpenScience Framework at Whole-brain maps presented in Fig. 4 can be found at

The following data sets were generated

Article and author information

Author details

  1. Tatiana Lau

    Department of Psychology, Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, United Kingdom
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0002-0681-7295
  2. Samuel J Gershman

    Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, United States
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0002-6546-3298
  3. Mina Cikara

    Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, United States
    For correspondence
    Competing interests
    The authors declare that no competing interests exist.
    ORCID icon "This ORCID iD identifies the author of this article:" 0000-0002-6612-4474


Mind Brain and Behavior Initiative, Harvard University (Faculty Grant)

  • Samuel J Gershman
  • Mina Cikara

National Science Foundation (BCS-1653188)

  • Mina Cikara

NIH Shared Instrumentation Grant Program (S10OD020039)

  • Mina Cikara

The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.


Human subjects: Participants provided informed consent; all procedures complied with Harvard University'sCommittee on the Use of Human Subjects board's guidelines. (Protocol #IRB15-2048).

Reviewing Editor

  1. Alexander Shackman, University of Maryland, United States

Publication history

  1. Received: October 30, 2019
  2. Accepted: February 17, 2020
  3. Accepted Manuscript published: February 18, 2020 (version 1)
  4. Version of Record published: April 6, 2020 (version 2)


© 2020, Lau et al.

This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License permitting unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited.


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  1. Tatiana Lau
  2. Samuel J Gershman
  3. Mina Cikara
Social structure learning in human anterior insula
eLife 9:e53162.

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