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Describe your research and the big picture problem or puzzle it addresses.

Rejection stings, right? The social pain hypothesis says that same biology for processing social exclusion also handles physical pain. Some evidence for this comes from fMRI studies of social exclusion finding that brain regions involved in social exclusion overlap with the regions that deal with physical pain. But other studies don’t find this at all.

How strong is this finding? And is the social pain hypothesis even true?

What did you do?

We summarized brain findings across 40 studies of social exclusion in a total of 1122 people using a procedure called activation-likelihood estimation. In one of our sub-analyses, we broke up the studies into adult and child groups to see if there were any effects of age.

What did you find?

Several regions were consistently implicated in social exclusion across studies, but we did not find the two regions associated with supporting the social pain hypothesis (the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula).

We also found that the ventral striatum is associated with social exclusion in children/adolescents more so than in young adults. Many other studies commonly say that this region reflects reward-processing, but our study suggests that its role perhaps isn’t that simple, at least in kids.

Describe the limitations.

The procedure we used is limited because it mainly summarizes across the one statistic most commonly reported in fMRI studies: the peak coordinate. This is the location in the brain within each “blob” or cluster that shows the strongest effect, but that doesn’t immediately take into account how strong the effect is, or how large the cluster is. Also, our study isn’t able to take into account that studies use different ways to define what makes a cluster a “significant” or reportable result. New tools like NeuroVault have researchers uploading their results more fully, allowing summaries using richer data and more consistent statistics.

What are the takeaways?

Our findings call the social pain hypothesis into question: The overlapping involvement of brain regions for processing both social exclusion and physical pain is thought to support the social brain hypothesis, but we found that these regions aren’t very consistently implicated in social exclusion across studies.

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