Causes of social outcome differences encoded in human brain

A. Vostroknutov, P.N. Tobler, A. Rustichini

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

20 Citations (Scopus)


Rewards may be due to skill, effort and luck, and the social perception of inequality in rewards among individuals may depend on what produced the inequality. Rewards due to skill produce a conflict: higher outcomes of others in this case are considered deserved, and this counters incentives to reduce inequality. However, they also signal superior skill, and for this reason induce strong negative affect in those who perform less, which increases the incentive to reduce the inequality. The neurobiological mechanisms underlying evaluation of rewards due to skill, effort and luck are still unknown. We scanned brain activity of subjects as they perceived monetary rewards caused by skill, effort or luck. Subjects could subtract from others. Subtraction was larger, everything else being equal, in luck; but increased more as the difference in outcomes grew in skill. Similarly, reward-related activation in medial orbitofrontal cortex was more sensitive to the difference in relative outcomes in skill trials. Orbitofrontal activation reflecting comparative reward advantage predicted by how much subjects reduced unfavorable reward inequality later on in the trial. Thus, medial orbitofrontal cortex activity reflects the causes of reward and predicts actions that reduce inequality.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1403-1412
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Publication statusPublished - 2012


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