Economic principles motivating social attention in humans.
We know little about the processes by which we evaluate the opportunity to look at another person. We propose that behavioural economics provides a powerful approach to understanding this basic aspect of social attention. We hypothesized that the decision process culminating in attention to another person follows the same economic principles that govern choices about rewards such as food, drinks and money. Specifically, such rewards are discounted as a function of time, are tradable for other rewards, and reinforce work. Behavioural and neurobiological evidence suggests that looking at other people can also be described as rewarding, but to what extent these economic principles apply to social orienting remains unknown. Here, we show that the opportunity to view pictures of the opposite sex is discounted by delay to viewing, substitutes for money and reinforces work. The reward value of photos of the opposite sex varied with physical attractiveness and was greater in men, suggesting differential utility of acquiring visual information about the opposite sex in men and women. Together, these results demonstrate that choosing whom to look at follows a general set of economic principles, implicating shared neural mechanisms in both social and non-social decision making.