Reward skewness coding in the insula independent of probability and loss

C. Burke, P.N. Tobler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

49 Citations (Scopus)


Rewards in the natural environment are rarely predicted with complete certainty. Uncertainty relating to future rewards has typically been defined as the variance of the potential outcomes. However, the asymmetry of predicted reward distributions, known as skewness, constitutes a distinct but neuroscientifically underexplored risk term that may also have an impact on preference. By changing only reward magnitudes, we study skewness processing in equiprobable ternary lotteries involving only gains and constant probabilities, thus excluding probability distortion or loss aversion as mechanisms for skewness preference formation. We show that individual preferences are sensitive to not only the mean and variance but also to the skewness of predicted reward distributions. Using neuroimaging, we show that the insula, a structure previously implicated in the processing of reward-related uncertainty, responds to the skewness of predicted reward distributions. Some insula responses increased in a monotonic fashion with skewness (irrespective of individual skewness preferences), whereas others were similarly elevated to both negative and positive as opposed to no reward skew. These data support the notion that the asymmetry of reward distributions is processed in the brain and, taken together with replicated findings of mean coding in the striatum and variance coding in the cingulate, suggest that the brain codes distinct aspects of reward distributions in a distributed fashion.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2415-2422
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2011


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