Behavioral theories and the neurophysiology of reward

Annu Rev Psychol. 2006:57:87-115. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.56.091103.070229.


The functions of rewards are based primarily on their effects on behavior and are less directly governed by the physics and chemistry of input events as in sensory systems. Therefore, the investigation of neural mechanisms underlying reward functions requires behavioral theories that can conceptualize the different effects of rewards on behavior. The scientific investigation of behavioral processes by animal learning theory and economic utility theory has produced a theoretical framework that can help to elucidate the neural correlates for reward functions in learning, goal-directed approach behavior, and decision making under uncertainty. Individual neurons can be studied in the reward systems of the brain, including dopamine neurons, orbitofrontal cortex, and striatum. The neural activity can be related to basic theoretical terms of reward and uncertainty, such as contiguity, contingency, prediction error, magnitude, probability, expected value, and variance.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology*
  • Corpus Striatum / physiology*
  • Decision Making / physiology
  • Dopamine / physiology
  • Humans
  • Learning / physiology
  • Motivation
  • Neural Pathways / physiology*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Psychological Theory*
  • Reward*
  • Social Behavior


  • Dopamine