Humans use forward thinking to exploit social controllability

Soojung Na, Dongil Chung, Andreas Hula, Ofer Perl, Jennifer Jung, Matthew Heflin, Sylvia Blackmore, Vincenzo G. Fiore, Peter Dayan, Xiaosi Gu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

12 Scopus citations


The controllability of our social environment has a profound impact on our behavior and mental health. Nevertheless, neurocomputational mechanisms underlying social controlla-bility remain elusive. Here, 48 participants performed a task where their current choices either did (Controllable), or did not (Uncontrollable), influence partners’ future proposals. Computational modeling revealed that people engaged a mental model of forward thinking (FT; i.e., calculating the downstream effects of current actions) to estimate social controllability in both Controllable and Uncontrollable conditions. A large-scale online replication study (n=1342) supported this finding. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (n=48), we further demonstrated that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) computed the projected total values of current actions during forward planning, supporting the neural realization of the forward-thinking model. These findings demonstrate that humans use vmPFC-dependent FT to estimate and exploit social controllability, expanding the role of this neurocomputational mechanism beyond spatial and cognitive contexts.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere64983
StatePublished - Oct 2021


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