A neural mechanism of social categorization

Ryan M. Stolier, Jonathan B. Freeman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Humans readily sort one another into multiple social categories from mere facial features. However, the facial features used to do so are not always clear-cut because they can be associated with opponent categories (e.g., feminine male face). Recently, computational models and behavioral studies have provided indirect evidence that categorizing such faces is accomplished through dynamic competition between parallel, coactivated social categories that resolve into a stable categorical percept. Using a novel paradigm combining fMRI with real-time hand tracking, the present study examined how the brain translates diverse social cues into categorical percepts. Participants (male and female) categorized faces varying in gender and racial typicality. When categorizing atypical faces, participants’ hand movements were simultaneously attracted toward the unselected category response, indexing the degree to which such faces activated the opposite category in parallel. Multivoxel pattern analyses (MVPAs) provided evidence that such social category coactivation manifested in neural patterns of the right fusiform cortex. The extent to which the hand was simultaneously attracted to the opposite gender or race category response option corresponded to increased neural pattern similarity with the average pattern associated with that category, which in turn associated with stronger engagement of the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. The findings point to a model of social categorization in which occasionally conflicting facial features are resolved through competition between coactivated ventral–temporal cortical representations with the assistance of conflict-monitoring regions. More broadly, the results offer a promising multimodal paradigm to investigate the neural basis of “hidden”, temporarily active representations in the service of a broad range of cognitive processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)5711-5721
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number23
StatePublished - Jun 7 2017


  • Categorization
  • Conflict monitoring
  • Dorsal anterior cingulate
  • Dynamic competition
  • Face perception
  • Fusiform

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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