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Dorsolateral and ventromedial prefrontal cortex orchestrate normative choice

Nature Neuroscience volume 14, pages 14681474 (2011) | Download Citation

Abstract

Humans are noted for their capacity to over-ride self-interest in favor of normatively valued goals. We examined the neural circuitry that is causally involved in normative, fairness-related decisions by generating a temporarily diminished capacity for costly normative behavior, a 'deviant' case, through non-invasive brain stimulation (repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation) and compared normal subjects' functional magnetic resonance imaging signals with those of the deviant subjects. When fairness and economic self-interest were in conflict, normal subjects (who make costly normative decisions at a much higher frequency) displayed significantly higher activity in, and connectivity between, the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and the posterior ventromedial prefrontal cortex (pVMPFC). In contrast, when there was no conflict between fairness and economic self-interest, both types of subjects displayed identical neural patterns and behaved identically. These findings suggest that a parsimonious prefrontal network, the activation of right DLPFC and pVMPFC, and the connectivity between them, facilitates subjects' willingness to incur the cost of normative decisions.

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Acknowledgements

We thank C. Ruff, K.E. Stephan and A. Rangel for their helpful comments. This study is a part of the project on the foundations of norm compliance in the National Center of Competence in Affective Sciences. E.F. also acknowledges support from the Neurochoice Project of SystemsX, the Swiss Initiative for Systems Biology. D.K. acknowledges support from the Swiss National Science Foundation (grant no. PP00P1-123381).

Author information

Author notes

    • Thomas Baumgartner
    •  & Daria Knoch

    These authors contributed equally to this work.

Affiliations

  1. Department of Economics, Laboratory for Social and Neural Systems Research, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland.

    • Thomas Baumgartner
    • , Philine Hotz
    • , Christoph Eisenegger
    •  & Ernst Fehr
  2. Department of Psychology, Laboratory for Social and Affective Neuroscience, University of Basel, Basel, Switzerland.

    • Thomas Baumgartner
    •  & Daria Knoch
  3. Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.

    • Christoph Eisenegger

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Contributions

T.B., D.K. and E.F. designed the study. T.B., D.K. and C.E. performed all of the experiments. T.B. and P.H. analyzed the data. T.B., D.K. and E.F. wrote the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Thomas Baumgartner or Daria Knoch or Ernst Fehr.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.2933