Response to anticipated reward in the nucleus accumbens predicts behavior in an independent test of honesty

J Neurosci. 2014 Aug 6;34(32):10564-72. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0217-14.2014.


This study examines the cognitive and neural determinants of honesty and dishonesty. Human subjects undergoing fMRI completed a monetary incentive delay task eliciting responses to anticipated reward in the nucleus accumbens. Subjects next performed an incentivized prediction task, giving them real and repeated opportunities for dishonest gain. Subjects attempted to predict the outcomes of random computerized coin-flips and were financially rewarded for accuracy. In some trials, subjects were rewarded based on self-reported accuracy, allowing them to gain money dishonestly by lying. Dishonest behavior was indexed by improbably high levels of self-reported accuracy. Nucleus accumbens response in the first task, involving only honest rewards, accounted for ∼25% of the variance in dishonest behavior in the prediction task. Individuals showing relatively strong nucleus accumbens responses to anticipated reward also exhibited increased dorsolateral prefrontal activity (bilateral) in response to opportunities for dishonest gain. These results address two hypotheses concerning (dis)honesty. According to the "Will" hypothesis, honesty results from the active deployment of self-control. According to the "Grace" hypothesis, honesty flows more automatically. The present results suggest a reconciliation between these two hypotheses while explaining (dis)honesty in terms of more basic neural mechanisms: relatively weak responses to anticipated rewards make people morally "Graceful," but individuals who respond more strongly may resist temptation by force of Will.

Keywords: dishonesty; fMRI; moral; morality; nucleus accumbens; reward.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Brain Mapping
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Morals*
  • Motivation / physiology*
  • Nucleus Accumbens / blood supply
  • Nucleus Accumbens / physiology*
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Reward*
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen