Two monkeys sit at computer screens, eyeing one another as they wait for a promised reward: apple juice. Each has a choice — it can either select a symbol that results in juice being shared equally, or pick one that delivers most of the juice to itself. But being selfish is risky. If its partner also chooses not to share, neither gets much juice.
This game, the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’, is a classic test of strategy that involves the simultaneous evaluation of an opponent’s thinking. Researchers have now discovered — and manipulated — specific brain circuits in rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta) that seem to be involved in the animals’ choices, and in their assessments of their partners’ choices. Investigating the connections could shed light on how social context affects decision-making in humans, and how disorders that affect social skills, such as autism spectrum disorder, disrupt brain circuitry.
“Once we have identified that there are particular neural signals necessary to drive the processes, we can begin to tinker,” says Michael Platt, a neurobiologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.