Limbic justice--amygdala involvement in immediate rejection in the Ultimatum Game

PLoS Biol. 2011 May;9(5):e1001054. doi: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001054. Epub 2011 May 3.


Imaging studies have revealed a putative neural account of emotional bias in decision making. However, it has been difficult in previous studies to identify the causal role of the different sub-regions involved in decision making. The Ultimatum Game (UG) is a game to study the punishment of norm-violating behavior. In a previous influential paper on UG it was suggested that frontal insular cortex has a pivotal role in the rejection response. This view has not been reconciled with a vast literature that attributes a crucial role in emotional decision making to a subcortical structure (i.e., amygdala). In this study we propose an anatomy-informed model that may join these views. We also present a design that detects the functional anatomical response to unfair proposals in a subcortical network that mediates rapid reactive responses. We used a functional MRI paradigm to study the early components of decision making and challenged our paradigm with the introduction of a pharmacological intervention to perturb the elicited behavioral and neural response. Benzodiazepine treatment decreased the rejection rate (from 37.6% to 19.0%) concomitantly with a diminished amygdala response to unfair proposals, and this in spite of an unchanged feeling of unfairness and unchanged insular response. In the control group, rejection was directly linked to an increase in amygdala activity. These results allow a functional anatomical detection of the early neural components of rejection associated with the initial reactive emotional response. Thus, the act of immediate rejection seems to be mediated by the limbic system and is not solely driven by cortical processes, as previously suggested. Our results also prompt an ethical discussion as we demonstrated that a commonly used drug influences core functions in the human brain that underlie individual autonomy and economic decision making.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Amygdala / anatomy & histology
  • Amygdala / drug effects
  • Amygdala / physiology*
  • Decision Making* / drug effects
  • Female
  • Games, Experimental*
  • Humans
  • Limbic System / anatomy & histology
  • Limbic System / drug effects
  • Limbic System / physiology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Oxazepam / pharmacology
  • Rejection, Psychology*
  • Statistics, Nonparametric
  • Young Adult


  • Oxazepam