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Perceptions of moral character modulate the neural systems of reward during the trust game

Abstract

Studies of reward learning have implicated the striatum as part of a neural circuit that guides and adjusts future behavior on the basis of reward feedback. Here we investigate whether prior social and moral information about potential trading partners affects this neural circuitry. Participants made risky choices about whether to trust hypothetical trading partners after having read vivid descriptions of life events indicating praiseworthy, neutral or suspect moral character. Despite equivalent reinforcement rates for all partners, participants were persistently more likely to make risky choices with the 'good' partner. As expected from previous studies, activation of the caudate nucleus differentiated between positive and negative feedback, but only for the 'neutral' partner. Notably, it did not do so for the 'good' partner and did so only weakly for the 'bad' partner, suggesting that prior social and moral perceptions can diminish reliance on feedback mechanisms in the neural circuitry of trial-and-error reward learning.

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Figure 1: Experimental design and behavioral results.
Figure 2: Caudate nucleus activation during outcome phase.
Figure 3: Time course of activation (± s.e.m.) of caudate nucleus ROI during the outcome phase for each condition.
Figure 4: Ventral striatum activation during the decision phase.
Figure 5: Cingulate cortex activation during the decision phase.

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Acknowledgements

The authors wish to acknowledge K. Nearing for assistance and useful discussion, J. Pearson and E. Neaville for technical assistance and S. Ravizza for informative discussion and constructive criticism. This work was supported by the US National Institute of Mental Health, the James S. McDonnell Foundation, the Beatrice and Samuel A. Seaver Foundation and Cornell's S.C. Johnson School of Management.

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Correspondence to E A Phelps.

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Delgado, M., Frank, R. & Phelps, E. Perceptions of moral character modulate the neural systems of reward during the trust game. Nat Neurosci 8, 1611–1618 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/nn1575

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