Evolutionary shifts in species–typical group size (‘sociality’) probably reflect natural selection on motivational processes such as social arousal, approach–avoidance, reward, stress/anxiety and dominance. Using four songbird species that differ selectively in sociality (one territorial, one modestly gregarious, and two highly gregarious species), we here examined immediate early gene (IEG) responses of relevant brain regions following exposure to a same–sex conspecific. The paradigm limited behavioural performance, thus species differences should reflect divergence in motivational and/or perceptual processes. Within the extended medial amygdala (which is involved in appetitive approach, social arousal and avoidance), we observed species differences in IEG response that are negatively graded in relation to sociality. In addition, brain areas that are involved in social stress and dominance–related behaviour (ventrolateral septum, anterior hypothalamus and lateral subdivision of the ventromedial hypothalamus) exhibited IEG responses that dichotomously distinguish the territorial species from the three gregarious species. The IEG responses of areas involved in reward (nucleus accumbens and ventral pallidum) and general stress processes (e.g. paraventricular hypothalamus, lateral bed nucleus of the stria terminalis and most areas of the lateral septum) do not correlate with sociality, indicating that social evolution has been accompanied by selection on a relatively discrete suite of motivational systems.