Activation of the default network during a theory of mind task predicts individual differences in agreeableness and social cognitive ability

Aisha L. Udochi, Scott D Blain, Tyler A. Sassenberg, Philip C Burton, Leroy Medrano, Colin G. DeYoung

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Social cognitive processes, such as emotion perception and empathy, allow humans to navigate complex social landscapes and are associated with specific neural systems. In particular, theory of mind (ToM), which refers to our ability to decipher the mental states of others, is related to the dorsal medial prefrontal cortex and temporoparietal junction, which include portions of the default network. Both social cognition and the default network have been linked to the personality trait Agreeableness. We hypothesized that default network activity during a ToM task would positively predict social cognitive abilities and Agreeableness. In a 3T fMRI scanner, participants (N = 1050) completed a ToM task in which they observed triangles displaying random or social (i.e., human-like) movement. Participants also completed self-report measures of Agreeableness and tests of intelligence and social cognitive ability. In each participant, average blood oxygen level dependent responses were calculated for default network regions associated with social cognition, and structural equation modeling was used to test associations of personality and task performance with activation in those brain regions. Default network activation in the dorsal medial subsystem was greater for social versus random animations. Default network activation in response to social animations predicted better performance on social cognition tasks and, to a lesser degree, higher Agreeableness. Neural response to social stimuli in the default network may be associated with effective social processing and could have downstream effects on social interactions. We discuss theoretical and methodological implications of this work for social and personality neuroscience.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)383-402
Number of pages20
JournalCognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue number2
Early online dateOct 19 2021
StatePublished - Apr 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Data were provided in part by the HCP, WU-Minn Consortium (Principal Investigators: David Van Essen and Kamil Uğurbil; 1U54MH091657) funded by the 16 NIH Institutes and Centers that support the NIH Blueprint for Neuroscience Research and by the McDonnell Center for Systems Neuroscience at Washington University. ALU and SDB were supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (grant #1348264). ALU was additionally supported by the Beverly and Richard Fink Summer Fellowship.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021, The Psychonomic Society, Inc.


  • Default network
  • Personality
  • Social cognition
  • Social neuroscience
  • Theory of Mind
  • fMRI

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.


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