Intelligence moderates neural responses to monetary reward and punishment

J Neurophysiol. 2014 May;111(9):1823-32. doi: 10.1152/jn.00393.2013. Epub 2014 Feb 12.


The relations between intelligence (IQ) and neural responses to monetary gains and losses were investigated in a simple decision task. In 94 healthy adults, typical responses of striatal blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) signal after monetary reward and punishment were weaker for subjects with higher IQ. IQ-moderated differential responses to gains and losses were also found for regions in the medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and left inferior frontal cortex. These regions have previously been identified with the subjective utility of monetary outcomes. Analysis of subjects' behavior revealed a correlation between IQ and the extent to which choices were related to experienced decision outcomes in preceding trials. Specifically, higher IQ predicted behavior to be more strongly correlated with an extended period of previously experienced decision outcomes, whereas lower IQ predicted behavior to be correlated exclusively to the most recent decision outcomes. We link these behavioral and imaging findings to a theoretical model capable of describing a role for intelligence during the evaluation of rewards generated by unknown probabilistic processes. Our results demonstrate neural differences in how people of different intelligence respond to experienced monetary rewards and punishments. Our theoretical discussion offers a functional description for how these individual differences may be linked to choice behavior. Together, our results and model support the hypothesis that observed correlations between intelligence and preferences may be rooted in the way decision outcomes are experienced ex post, rather than deriving exclusively from how choices are evaluated ex ante.

Keywords: decision making; intelligence; punishment; reinforcement learning; reward; risk.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Intelligence*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological
  • Punishment*
  • Token Economy*