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Regret and its avoidance: a neuroimaging study of choice behavior



Human decisions can be shaped by predictions of emotions that ensue after choosing advantageously or disadvantageously. Indeed, anticipating regret is a powerful predictor of future choices. We measured brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while subjects selected between two gambles wherein regret was induced by providing information about the outcome of the unchosen gamble. Increasing regret enhanced activity in the medial orbitofrontal region, the anterior cingulate cortex and the hippocampus. Notably, across the experiment, subjects became increasingly regret-aversive, a cumulative effect reflected in enhanced activity within medial orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala. This pattern of activity reoccurred just before making a choice, suggesting that the same neural circuitry mediates direct experience of regret and its anticipation. These results demonstrate that medial orbitofrontal cortex modulates the gain of adaptive emotions in a manner that may provide a substrate for the influence of high-level emotions on decision making.

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This work was supported by grants from the Human Frontier Science Program (RGP 56/2005), the Action Concertée Incitative, Systemes Complexes from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique to A.S. and G.C., the Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior to M.J., a Wellcome Trust Programme Grant to R.J.D. and a Wellcome Senior Fellowship in Clinical Science to H.D.C.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Correspondence to Angela Sirigu or Raymond J Dolan.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Figure 1

    Activity at choice in partial-feedback choose (PC) condition when subjects chose minimizing future disappointment vs. maximization of expected values. (PDF 132 kb)

  2. Supplementary Figure 2

    Activity at choice in complete-feedback choose (CC) condition when subjects chose minimizing future regret vs. maximization of expected values. (PDF 130 kb)

  3. Supplementary Figure 3

    Smoothed normalized EPI images and corresponding locations in a normalized structural template image. (PDF 216 kb)

  4. Supplementary Table 1

    Pairs of gambles used in the fMRI experiment. (PDF 60 kb)

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Further reading

Figure 1: Experimental design.
Figure 2: Activity at outcome is related to win and loss.
Figure 3: The effect of the unobtained outcome: counterfactual processing of value.
Figure 4: Regret and relief.
Figure 5: Activity at choice: learning from the experience of regret.