Functional Connectivity Basis and Underlying Cognitive Mechanisms for Gender Differences in Guilt Aversion

eNeuro. 2021 Dec 15;8(6):ENEURO.0226-21.2021. doi: 10.1523/ENEURO.0226-21.2021. Print Nov-Dec 2021.


Prosocial behavior is pivotal to our society. Guilt aversion, which describes the tendency to reduce the discrepancy between a partner's expectation and his/her actual outcome, drives human prosocial behavior as does well-known inequity aversion. Although women are reported to be more inequity averse than men, gender differences in guilt aversion remain unexplored. Here, we conducted a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study (n = 52) and a large-scale online behavioral study (n = 4723) of a trust game designed to investigate guilt and inequity aversions. The fMRI study demonstrated that men exhibited stronger guilt aversion and recruited right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC)-ventromedial PFC (VMPFC) connectivity more for guilt aversion than women, while VMPFC-dorsal medial PFC (DMPFC) connectivity was commonly used in both genders. Furthermore, our regression analysis of the online behavioral data collected with Big Five and demographic factors replicated the gender differences and revealed that Big Five Conscientiousness (rule-based decision) correlated with guilt aversion only in men, but Agreeableness (empathetic consideration) correlated with guilt aversion in both genders. Thus, this study suggests that gender differences in prosocial behavior are heterogeneous depending on underlying motives in the brain and that the consideration of social norms plays a key role in the stronger guilt aversion in men.

Keywords: DLPFC; fMRI; gender difference; guilt aversion; prosocial behavior; social norm.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain Mapping
  • Cognition
  • Female
  • Guilt*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Prefrontal Cortex / diagnostic imaging
  • Sex Factors