Damage to the human ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VM) can result in dramatic and maladaptive changes in social behavior despite preservation of most other cognitive abilities. One important aspect of social cognition is the ability to detect social dominance, a process of attributing from particular social signals another person's relative standing in the social world. To test the role of the VM in making attributions of social dominance, we designed two experiments: one requiring dominance judgments from static pictures of faces, the second requiring dominance judgments from film clips. We tested three demographically matched groups of subjects: subjects with focal lesions in the VM (n = 15), brain-damaged comparison subjects with lesions excluding the VM (n = 11), and a reference group of normal individuals with no history of neurological disease (n = 32). Contrary to our expectation, we found that subjects with VM lesions gave dominance judgments on both tasks that did not differ significantly from those given by the other groups. Despite their grossly normal performance, however, subjects with VM lesions showed more subtle impairments specifically when judging static faces: They were less discriminative in their dominance judgments, and did not appear to make normal use of gender and age of the faces in forming their judgments. The findings suggest that, in the laboratory tasks we used, damage to the VM does not necessarily impair judgments of social dominance, although it appears to result in alterations in strategy that might translate into behavioral impairments in real life.

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