Predicting the Behaviors of Others… For Good or for Evil

Over spring break, I had the opportunity to see the movie Gone Girl (2014). Without giving anything away, many characters in this movie exhibit a strong ability to make predictions about the behaviors of those surrounding them. They use those predictions to navigate their social world. There is a lead character in this movie named Amy, who seems to make especially accurate predictions about how people she knows well will behave. Amy uses this ability to be extremely manipulative of those around her.

As humans, it is important for us to be able to accurately and efficiently make predictions about others’ behavior so that we may prepare and behave appropriately. We use our memory for how people have behaved in the past to guide the way we understand our social world. In Gone Girl, Amy used these predictions about others to manipulate various people in her life. How are people represented in Amy’s brain, and in human brains in general, to allow for such accuracy in predicting behavior?

Using fMRI brain imaging, Hassabis et al. (2014) found evidence for distinct regions of the brain that represent one’s impressions of the personality traits of others. These regions were consistently identified as the mPFC, pCC, MTL, LTC, temporal pole, IPL, and the superior and inferior frontal gyri. In previous studies, activity in these regions has also been associated with scene construction and imagining future events (Hassabis, Kumaran, Maguire, 2007; Hassabis, Kumaran, Vann, et al., 2007; Schacter et al., 2007, 2012). It appears that the brain than combines these traits to represent unique individuals, then uses this information to predict a certain individual’s behavior.

Understanding how the brain makes predictions about the behavior of others is important. In repeated situations, predictions of others’ behavior seems obvious: they will behave as they did the last time this event was witnessed. For example, if a professor angrily scolds a student who is late to the lecture, chances are the professor will react in a similar way the next day when a student is late. Other students in the class would use this instance to help them make predictions, and in response, not be late to lecture (assuming they do not want to be scolded by their angry professor.) However, how would we make predictions about this professor’s behavior in new situations? Evidence from Hassabis et al. (2014) suggest that personality information is stored separately from the past events that relayed this information, therefore allowing the brain to separate situation and behavior. Therefore, we are able to make behavioral predictions by combining all of the information we have regarding an individual’s personality. The neurological reasoning for why some people, like Amy, seem to be particularly strong at making these predictions should be a topic for future investigation.

Works Cited

Dixon, L. (Producer) & Fincher, D. (Director). (2014). Gone Girl [Motion picture]. United States: 20th Century Fox.

Hassabis, D., Spreng, N., Rusu, A., Robbins, C., Mar, R., Schacter, D. (2014). Imagine all the people: How the brain creates and uses personality models to predict behavior. Cerebral Cortex, 24(8), 1979–1987.

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