Triangulating the neural, psychological, and economic bases of guilt aversion

Neuron. 2011 May 12;70(3):560-72. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2011.02.056.

Abstract

Why do people often choose to cooperate when they can better serve their interests by acting selfishly? One potential mechanism is that the anticipation of guilt can motivate cooperative behavior. We utilize a formal model of this process in conjunction with fMRI to identify brain regions that mediate cooperative behavior while participants decided whether or not to honor a partner's trust. We observed increased activation in the insula, supplementary motor area, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (PFC), and temporal parietal junction when participants were behaving consistent with our model, and found increased activity in the ventromedial PFC, dorsomedial PFC, and nucleus accumbens when they chose to abuse trust and maximize their financial reward. This study demonstrates that a neural system previously implicated in expectation processing plays a critical role in assessing moral sentiments that in turn can sustain human cooperation in the face of temptation.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Cerebral Cortex / blood supply
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Economics*
  • Female
  • Genetic Testing
  • Guilt*
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Models, Psychological
  • Morals*
  • Motivation*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Regression Analysis
  • Reward
  • Young Adult

Substances

  • Oxygen