What might have been? The role of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and lateral orbitofrontal cortex in counterfactual emotions and choice

Neuropsychologia. 2014 Feb;54:77-86. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2013.10.026. Epub 2013 Dec 10.


Counterfactual feelings of regret occur when people make comparisons between an actual outcome and a better outcome that would have occurred under a different choice. We investigated the choices of individuals with damage to the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) and the lateral orbital frontal cortex (LOFC) to see whether their emotional responses were sensitive to regret. Participants made choices between gambles, each with monetary outcomes. After every choice, subjects learned the consequences of both gambles and rated their emotional response to the outcome. Normal subjects and lesion control subjects tended to make better choices and reported post-decision emotions that were sensitive to regret comparisons. VMPFC patients tended to make worse choices, and, contrary to our predictions, they reported emotions that were sensitive to regret comparisons. In contrast, LOFC patients made better choices, but reported emotional reactions that were insensitive to regret comparisons. We suggest the VMPFC is involved in the association between choices and anticipated emotions that guide future choices, while the LOFC is involved in experienced emotions that follow choices, emotions that may signal the need for behavioral change.

Keywords: Counterfactual comparison; Decision making; Emotion; OFC; Regret; VMPFC.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain Diseases / pathology
  • Brain Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Choice Behavior / physiology*
  • Decision Making / physiology
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Frontal Lobe / pathology
  • Frontal Lobe / physiopathology*
  • Gambling
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Prefrontal Cortex / pathology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Regression Analysis
  • Risk-Taking
  • Task Performance and Analysis