Social and monetary reward learning engage overlapping neural substrates

Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2012 Mar;7(3):274-81. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsr006. Epub 2011 Mar 22.


Learning to make choices that yield rewarding outcomes requires the computation of three distinct signals: stimulus values that are used to guide choices at the time of decision making, experienced utility signals that are used to evaluate the outcomes of those decisions and prediction errors that are used to update the values assigned to stimuli during reward learning. Here we investigated whether monetary and social rewards involve overlapping neural substrates during these computations. Subjects engaged in two probabilistic reward learning tasks that were identical except that rewards were either social (pictures of smiling or angry people) or monetary (gaining or losing money). We found substantial overlap between the two types of rewards for all components of the learning process: a common area of ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) correlated with stimulus value at the time of choice and another common area of vmPFC correlated with reward magnitude and common areas in the striatum correlated with prediction errors. Taken together, the findings support the hypothesis that shared anatomical substrates are involved in the computation of both monetary and social rewards.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain / blood supply
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Choice Behavior
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Reward*
  • Social Behavior*
  • Statistics as Topic
  • Time Factors
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen