Impulse control and underlying functions of the left DLPFC mediate age-related and age-independent individual differences in strategic social behavior

Neuron. 2012 Mar 8;73(5):1040-51. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2011.12.027.


Human social exchange is often characterized by conflicts of interest requiring strategic behavior for their resolution. To investigate the development of the cognitive and neural mechanisms underlying strategic behavior, we studied children's decisions while they played two types of economic exchange games with differing demands of strategic behavior. We show an increase of strategic behavior with age, which could not be explained by age-related changes in social preferences but instead by developmental differences in impulsivity and associated brain functions of the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). Furthermore, observed differences in cortical thickness of lDLPFC were predictive of differences in impulsivity and strategic behavior irrespective of age. We conclude that egoistic behavior in younger children is not caused by a lack of understanding right or wrong, but by the inability to implement behavioral control when tempted to act selfishly; a function relying on brain regions maturing only late in ontogeny.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aging / metabolism*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Child
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality*
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Impulsive Behavior / pathology*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Negotiating*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Oxygen
  • Prefrontal Cortex / anatomy & histology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / blood supply
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*
  • Social Behavior*
  • Statistics, Nonparametric
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen