All known human societies establish social order by punishing violators of social norms. However, little is known about how the brain processes the punishment threat associated with norm violations. We use fMRI to study the neural circuitry behind social norm compliance by comparing a treatment in which norm violations can be punished with a control treatment in which punishment is impossible. Individuals' increase in norm compliance when punishment is possible exhibits a strong positive correlation with activations in the lateral orbitofrontal cortex and right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Moreover, lateral orbitofrontal cortex activity is strongly correlated with Machiavellian personality characteristics. These findings indicate a neural network involved in social norm compliance that might constitute an important basis for human sociality. Different activations of this network reveal individual differences in the behavioral response to the punishment threat and might thus provide a deeper understanding of the neurobiological sources of pathologies such as antisocial personality disorder.
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