Neuroscientific studies of social cognition typically employ paradigms in which perceivers draw single-shot inferences about the internal states of strangers. Real-world social inference features much different parameters: People often encounter and learn about particular social targets (e.g., friends) over time and receive feedback about whether their inferences are correct or incorrect. Here, we examined this process and, more broadly, the intersection between social cognition and reinforcement learning. Perceivers were scanned using fMRI while repeatedly encountering three social targets who produced conflicting visual and verbal emotional cues. Perceivers guessed how targets felt and received feedback about whether they had guessed correctly. Visual cues reliably predicted one target's emotion, verbal cues predicted a second target's emotion, and neither reliably predicted the third target's emotion. Perceivers successfully used this information to update their judgments over time. Furthermore, trial-by-trial learning signals—estimated using two reinforcement learning models—tracked activity in ventral striatum and ventromedial pFC, structures associated with reinforcement learning, and regions associated with updating social impressions, including TPJ. These data suggest that learning about others' emotions, like other forms of feedback learning, relies on domain-general reinforcement mechanisms as well as domain-specific social information processing.

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