Joanna M. Chango, Lane Beckes, Joseph P. Allen, & James Coan
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Joanna M. Chango, Lane Beckes, Joseph P. Allen, & James Coan University of Virginia

This study was made possible by funding from by grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute of Mental Health (9R01 HD058305-11A1 & R01-MH58066) awarded to Joseph P. Allen, Principal Investigator . 

Copies available online at: or request a copy by emailing [email protected]

  • Neural responses to social exclusion (Age 25). Participants completed a pre-set virtual ball tossing game called Cyberball in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, in which they were led to believe that they were excluded from playing a virtual game of catch with two other “players.”

  • fMRI image acquisition and modeling of contrasts

    • Using FMRIB Software Library (FSL), the collected data was preprocessed and analyzed.

    • The Cyberball task was modeled using a block design with each round of Cyberball modeled as a run. A contrast of activation to social exclusion minus activation to social inclusion was used. The portion of the second Cyberball run during which the participants were included in the ball tossing game comprised the first block (inclusion), and the portion of the second run in which the participants no longer received ball tosses comprised the second block (exclusion).

  • Sociability (Age 25). Assessed using close friend reports on the sociability subscale of the Self-Perception Profile for Adults, modified to be used as a peer report instrument (Messer & Harter, 1986). The format for this measure asks close friends to choose between two contrasting descriptors, and then rate the extent to which their choice is sort of true or really true about the target participant. An example item is: “Some adults feel uncomfortable when they have to meet new people” and “Other adults like to meet new people.” Internal consistency was excellent (Cronbach’s α = 0.81).

Figure 1: Quality of peer relationships at age 13-15 positively predicts sociability at age 25


Age 13-15

Age 25


  • Negative adolescent peer relations have shown prospective associations with a range of psychosocial difficulties, including subsequent interpersonal problems (e.g., Pedersen et al., 2007). Additionally, a lack of support from a close friend in adolescence has been related to increased stress (Hauser & Bowlds, 1990) and the experience of greater negative affect (Bagwell et al., 2005), though a paucity of research has focused on contributions from early peer relationships to social functioning during young adulthood.

  • This study focused on young adults’ level of sociability as the outcome of interest, given that a lack of meaningful social contact during adulthood has shown relations to various physical and mental health difficulties (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010).

  • Recent neuroimaging work has demonstrated that brain regions implicated in heightened stress reactivity and emotion regulation, such as the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), right insula, and ventro-medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) are activated in response to social exclusion (e.g., Eisenberger et al., 2003; Masten et al., 2009). Though again, no research to date has investigated associations between dysfunctional neural responses to social exclusion and social behavior, such as sociability. Given the dire negative consequences of social isolation, elucidating correlates and predictors of problematic social functioning during young adulthood is essential.



Adolescent peer relationships and neural correlates of social exclusion: An additive model predicting young adult sociability




Peer Relationship Quality

Figure 2: dACC activity during social exclusion at age 25 is negatively associated with sociability at age 25

Age 25

Age 25







dACC activity during exclusion



Figure 3: Peer relationship quality at 13-15 and dACC activity during exclusion at 25 are uniquely related to sociability at 25

Age 25

Preliminary region of interest (ROI) analyses

Multi-subject ROIs were identified via cluster-wise tests using the FSL standard Z-threshold of 2.3 and cluster p threshold of .05.

ROIs were further defined anatomically using FSLView’s Harvard-Oxford Cortical and Subcortical atlases. Voxels falling into the location where the functional ROI overlapped with the atlas-derived brain structure were masked. Mean parameter estimates were then extracted from each ROI in each condition for each subject using FEATQuery, and converted to mean percent-signal change (PSC) values for each ROI.



Hypothesis 1: Lower quality peer relationships in early adolescence will predict low sociability in young adulthood.

Hypothesis 2: Greater activation in brain regions associated with a heightened stress reactivity during social exclusion will be associated with less sociability in young adulthood.





Peer Relationship Quality



dACC activity during exclusion

Table 1: ROIs active during social exclusion

  • Participants

  • Longitudinal, multi-method data were obtained for 75 target participants (41 male, 34 female), and their close friends.

  • Median family income of target participants was in the $30,000-39,999 range

  • The sample was 52% European-American, 33% African-American, 15% mixed/other race

  • Measures

  • Quality of Peer Relationships (Age 13-15). Assessed using self-reports on the Inventory of Parent and Peer Attachment (Armsden & Greenberg, 1987). A composite score of adolescents’ perceptions of the overall quality of their relationship with their peers in terms of the degree of trust, communication, and alienation was used. Adolescent ratings were summed and then averaged across ages 13-15. Internal consistency was excellent (Cronbach’s α = .90).

Note: A mediation model was also tested investigating dACC activity during exclusion as a mediator of the link between quality of peer relationships and sociability and the mediation model was not significant.


Findings support hypotheses, such that lower quality peer relationships in adolescence positively predict level of sociability over a decade later. Further, dACC activity in response to exclusion was associated with lower levels of sociability, suggesting that dysfunctional neural responses to social stress have functional associations with social behavior.

Further, results suggest that quality of adolescents’ peer relationships as well as neural responses to social exclusion uniquely predict sociability at age 25, and that perhaps the presence of both problematic peer relationships as well as altered neural processing of negative social experiences increase risk of impaired social functioning in young adulthood.

Future research should investigate other psychosocial outcomes and should use experimental paradigms in order to test causal associations between constructs.

Primary analyses

A series of hierarchical linear regressions were performed using FIML procedures in Mplus to examine predictions to and associations with young adult sociability. Gender and family income were accounted for in all models.