News Release

People can make better choices when it benefits others

Learning to avoid harm to others recruits the social brain, improves decision-making

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Society for Neuroscience

People Can Make Better Choices When It Benefits Others

image: Brain activity associated with valuation processes during choices. view more 

Credit: Lengersdorff et al., eNeuro 2020

People are better at learning and decision-making when trying to avoid harm to others, according to new research published in JNeurosci.

Humans are often motivated by self-interest. Participants in one study, for example, learned a game faster when they earned money for themselves as opposed to another person. However, this pattern changes when physical harm enters the equation.

Lengersdorff et al. investigated how effectively people learn to avoid harm to themselves and others. While in an fMRI scanner, participants played an electric shock game. They chose between two abstract symbols: one had a high chance of delivering a non-painful electrical shock while the other had a low chance of delivering a painful shock. Computational modeling revealed that the participants were better at making optimal choices -- resulting in the least amount of pain -- when they chose for another person, rather than themselves. This could be explained by an increased sensitivity to the value of one choice over another.

People most intent on avoiding shock showed increased activation in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), a brain area implicated in evaluating decisions. Choosing for another person was also associated with synchronized activity between the VMPFC and the temporoparietal junction, a region implicated in assessing the emotional states of others. This implies that other-related learning and decision-making stems from collaboration between the neural valuation system and the social brain.


Manuscript title: When Implicit Prosociality Trumps Selfishness: The Neural Valuation System Underpins More Optimal Choices When Learning To Avoid Harm To Others Than To Oneself

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About JNeurosci

JNeurosci, the Society for Neuroscience's first journal, was launched in 1981 as a means to communicate the findings of the highest quality neuroscience research to the growing field. Today, the journal remains committed to publishing cutting-edge neuroscience that will have an immediate and lasting scientific impact, while responding to authors' changing publishing needs, representing breadth of the field and diversity in authorship.

About The Society for Neuroscience

The Society for Neuroscience is the world's largest organization of scientists and physicians devoted to understanding the brain and nervous system. The nonprofit organization, founded in 1969, now has nearly 37,000 members in more than 90 countries and over 130 chapters worldwide.

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