Neural signatures of fairness-related normative decision making in the ultimatum game: a coordinate-based meta-analysis

Hum Brain Mapp. 2015 Feb;36(2):591-602. doi: 10.1002/hbm.22649. Epub 2014 Oct 18.


The willingness to incur personal costs to enforce prosocial norms represents a hallmark of human civilization. Although recent neuroscience studies have used the ultimatum game to understand the neuropsychological mechanisms that underlie the enforcement of fairness norms; however, a precise characterization of the neural systems underlying fairness-related norm enforcement remains elusive. In this study, we used a coordinate-based meta-analysis on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies using the ultimatum game with the goal to provide an additional level of evidence for the refinement of the underlying neural architecture of this human puzzling behavior. Our results demonstrated a convergence of reported activation foci in brain networks associated with psychological components of fairness-related normative decision making, presumably reflecting a reflexive and intuitive system (System 1) and a reflective and deliberate system (System 2). System 1 (anterior insula, ventromedial prefrontal cortex [PFC]) may be associated with the reflexive and intuitive responses to norm violations, representing a motivation to punish norm violators. Those intuitive responses conflict with economic self-interest, encoded in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which may engage cognitive control from a reflective and deliberate System 2 to resolve the conflict by either suppressing (ventrolateral PFC, dorsomedial PFC, left dorsolateral PFC, and rostral ACC) the intuitive responses or over-riding self-interest (right dorsolateral PFC). Taken together, we suggest that fairness-related norm enforcement recruits an intuitive system for rapid evaluation of norm violations and a deliberate system for integrating both social norms and self-interest to regulate the intuitive system in favor of more flexible decision making.

Keywords: activation likelihood estimation; fMRI; fairness; multiple-system models; norm enforcement; ultimatum game.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Games, Experimental
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Social Behavior*