Values encoded in orbitofrontal cortex are causally related to economic choices

Nature. 2020 Dec;588(7838):450-453. doi: 10.1038/s41586-020-2880-x. Epub 2020 Nov 2.


In the eighteenth century, Daniel Bernoulli, Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham proposed that economic choices rely on the computation and comparison of subjective values1. This hypothesis continues to inform modern economic theory2 and research in behavioural economics3, but behavioural measures are ultimately not sufficient to verify the proposal4. Consistent with the hypothesis, when agents make choices, neurons in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) encode the subjective value of offered and chosen goods5. Value-encoding cells integrate multiple dimensions6-9, variability in the activity of each cell group correlates with variability in choices10,11 and the population dynamics suggests the formation of a decision12. However, it is unclear whether these neural processes are causally related to choices. More generally, the evidence linking economic choices to value signals in the brain13-15 remains correlational16. Here we show that neuronal activity in the OFC is causal to economic choices. We conducted two experiments using electrical stimulation in rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta). Low-current stimulation increased the subjective value of individual offers and thus predictably biased choices. Conversely, high-current stimulation disrupted both the computation and the comparison of subjective values, and thus increased choice variability. These results demonstrate a causal chain linking subjective values encoded in OFC to valuation and choice.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biobehavioral Sciences*
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Economics*
  • Electric Conductivity
  • Electric Stimulation
  • Electrodes
  • Macaca mulatta / physiology
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Neurons / physiology
  • Prefrontal Cortex / cytology*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology*