The value of success: acquiring gains, avoiding losses, and simply being successful

PLoS One. 2011;6(9):e25307. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0025307. Epub 2011 Sep 22.


A large network of spatially contiguous, yet anatomically distinct regions in medial frontal cortex is involved in reward processing. Although it is clear these regions play a role in critical aspects of reward-related learning and decision-making, the individual contributions of each component remains unclear. We explored dissociations in reward processing throughout several key regions in the reward system and aimed to clarify the nature of previously observed outcome-related activity in a portion of anterior medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC). Specifically, we tested whether activity in anterior mOFC was related to processing successful actions, such that this region would respond similarly to rewards with and without tangible benefits, or whether this region instead encoded only quantifiable outcome values (e.g., money). Participants performed a task where they encountered monetary gains and losses (and non-gains and non-losses) during fMRI scanning. Critically, in addition to the outcomes with monetary consequences, the task included trials that provided outcomes without tangible benefits (participants were simply told that they were correct or incorrect). We found that anterior mOFC responded to all successful outcomes regardless of whether they carried tangible benefits (monetary gains and non-losses) or not (controls). These results support the hypothesis that anterior mOFC processes rewards in terms of a common currency and is capable of providing reward-based signals for everything we value, whether it be primary or secondary rewards or simply a successful experience without objectively quantifiable benefits.

Publication types

  • Clinical Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Reward*
  • Young Adult