Beyond revenge: neural and genetic bases of altruistic punishment

Neuroimage. 2011 Jan 1;54(1):671-80. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.07.051. Epub 2010 Jul 27.


It is still debated how altruistic punishment as one form of strong reciprocity has established during evolution and which motives may underlie such behavior. Recent neuroscientific evidence on the activation of brain reward regions during altruistic punishment in two-person one-shot exchange games suggests satisfaction through the punishment of norm violations as one underlying motive. In order to address this issue in more detail, we used fMRI during a one-shot economic exchange game that warrants strong reciprocity by introducing a third party punishment condition wherein revenge is unlikely to play a role. We report here that indeed, reward regions such as the nucleus accumbens showed punishment-related activation. Moreover, we provide preliminary evidence that genetic variation of dopamine turnover impacts similarly on punishment-related nucleus accumbens activation during both first person and third party punishment. The overall pattern of results suggests a common cognitive-affective-motivational network as the driving force for altruistic punishment, with only quantitative differences between first person and third party perspectives.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Altruism*
  • Amino Acid Substitution
  • Attitude
  • Brain Mapping / methods
  • Catechol O-Methyltransferase / genetics*
  • Caudate Nucleus / physiology
  • Female
  • Genetics, Behavioral*
  • Genotype
  • Gyrus Cinguli / physiology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods
  • Male
  • Nucleus Accumbens / physiology
  • Personality Inventory
  • Polymorphism, Genetic
  • Punishment* / psychology
  • Young Adult


  • Catechol O-Methyltransferase