The social brain automatically predicts others’ future mental states
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Description: Social life requires people to predict the future: people must anticipate others’ thoughts, feelings, and actions in order to interact with them successfully. The theory of predictive coding suggests that the social brain may meet this need by automatically predicting others’ social futures. If so, when representing others’ current mental state, the brain should already start representing their future states. To test this hypothesis, we used functional neuroimaging to measure participants’ neural representations of mental states. Representational similarity analysis revealed that neural patterns associated with mental states currently under consideration resembled patterns of likely future states, more so than patterns of unlikely future states. This effect manifested in activity across the social brain network, and in medial prefrontal cortex in particular. Repetition suppression analysis also supported the social predictive coding hypothesis: considering mental states presented in predictable sequences reduced activity in the precuneus, relative to unpredictable sequences. In addition to demonstrating that the brain makes automatic predictions of others’ social futures, the results also demonstrate that the brain leverages a three-dimensional representational space to make these predictions. Proximity between mental states on the psychological dimensions of rationality, social impact, and valence explained much of the association between state-specific neural pattern similarity and state transition likelihood. Together, these findings suggest that the way the brain represents the social present gives people an automatic glimpse of the social future.