Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Guilt motivates cooperation

An article by Chang et al. in Cell examines neural, psychological, and economic bases of guilt aversion. They use fMRI during a game involving trust to demonstrate that signals rising in the insula, anterior cingulate cortex, and elsewhere promote cooperative behavior in the game, possibly facilitated by the psychological motivation to avoid disappointing others. The abstract includes an outline summary and a video discussion of the work.
Guilt can be formally operationalized as failing to live up to another's expectations
Guilt aversion motivates cooperative behavior
Decisions which minimize future guilt are associated with insula, SMA, DLPFC, TPJ
Decisions which maximize financial reward are associated with vmPFC, NAcc, DMPFC

Why do people often choose to cooperate when they can better serve their interests by acting selfishly? One potential mechanism is that the anticipation of guilt can motivate cooperative behavior. We utilize a formal model of this process in conjunction with fMRI to identify brain regions that mediate cooperative behavior while participants decided whether or not to honor a partner's trust. We observed increased activation in the insula, supplementary motor area, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (PFC), and temporal parietal junction when participants were behaving consistent with our model, and found increased activity in the ventromedial PFC, dorsomedial PFC, and nucleus accumbens when they chose to abuse trust and maximize their financial reward. This study demonstrates that a neural system previously implicated in expectation processing plays a critical role in assessing moral sentiments that in turn can sustain human cooperation in the face of temptation.

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