Neural networks supporting social evaluation of bodies based on body shape

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Body shape cues inferences regarding personality and health, but the neural processes underpinning such inferences remain poorly understood. Across two fMRI experiments, we test the extent to which neural networks associated with body perception and theory-of-mind (ToM) support social inferences based on body shape. Participants observed obese, muscular, and slim bodies that cued distinct social inferences as pilot experiments revealed. To investigate judgment intentionality, the first fMRI experiment required participants to detect repeat presentations of bodies, whereas in fMRI Experiment 2 participants intentionally formed an impression. Body and ToM networks were localized using independent functional localisers. Experiment 1 revealed no differential network engagement for muscular or obese compared to slim bodies. By contrast, in Experiment 2, compared to slim bodies, forming impressions of muscular bodies engaged the body-network more, whereas the ToM-network was engaged more when forming impressions of obese bodies. These results demonstrate that social judgments based on body shape do not rely on a single neural mechanism, but rather on multiple mechanisms that are separately sensitive to body fat and muscularity. Moreover, dissociable responses are only apparent when intentionally forming an impression. Thus, these experiments show how segregated networks operate to extract socially-relevant information cued by body shape.


  • Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Body perception, Theory of mind, Body shape
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)328-344
JournalSocial Neuroscience
Issue number3
Early online date13 Mar 2018
Publication statusPublished - May 2019

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