Dopaminergic challenge dissociates learning from primary versus secondary sources of information

Alicia J Rybicki, Sophie L Sowden, Bianca Schuster, Jennifer L Cook

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Some theories of human cultural evolution posit that humans have social-specific learning mechanisms that are adaptive specialisations moulded by natural selection to cope with the pressures of group living. However, the existence of neurochemical pathways that are specialised for learning from social information and individual experience is widely debated. Cognitive neuroscientific studies present mixed evidence for social-specific learning mechanisms: some studies find dissociable neural correlates for social and individual learning, whereas others find the same brain areas and, dopamine-mediated, computations involved in both. Here, we demonstrate that, like individual learning, social learning is modulated by the dopamine D2 receptor antagonist haloperidol when social information is the primary learning source, but not when it comprises a secondary, additional element. Two groups (total N = 43) completed a decision-making task which required primary learning, from own experience, and secondary learning from an additional source. For one group, the primary source was social, and secondary was individual; for the other group this was reversed. Haloperidol affected primary learning irrespective of social/individual nature, with no effect on learning from the secondary source. Thus, we illustrate that dopaminergic mechanisms underpinning learning can be dissociated along a primary-secondary but not a social-individual axis. These results resolve conflict in the literature and support an expanding field showing that, rather than being specialised for particular inputs, neurochemical pathways in the human brain can process both social and non-social cues and arbitrate between the two depending upon which cue is primarily relevant for the task at hand.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere74893
Publication statusPublished - 15 Mar 2022


  • Haloperidol
  • Reinforcement Learning
  • dopamine
  • social learning


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