Home > publication > Neural evidence for inequality-averse social preferences: Nature

Neural evidence for inequality-averse social preferences: Nature

Neural evidence for inequality-averse social preferences : Nature.

A paper by my colleague John O’Doherty which recently appeared in Nature.

[Update: an extensive discussion by Jonah Lehrer at The Frontal Cortex blog.]


Neural evidence for inequality-averse social preferences

Elizabeth Tricomi1, Antonio Rangel2,3, Colin F. Camerer2,3 & John P. O’Doherty2,3,4

  1. Psychology Department, Rutgers University, Newark, New Jersey 07102, USA
  2. Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences,
  3. Computational and Neural Systems, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91125, USA
  4. School of Psychology and Trinity College Institute of Neuroscience, Trinity College, Dublin 2, Ireland

Correspondence to: John P. O’Doherty2,3,4 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to J.O.D. (Email: johnpodoherty@gmail.com).

A popular hypothesis in the social sciences is that humans have social preferences to reduce inequality in outcome distributions because it has a negative impact on their experienced reward1, 2, 3. Although there is a large body of behavioural and anthropological evidence consistent with the predictions of these theories1, 4, 5, 6, there is no direct neural evidence for the existence of inequality-averse preferences. Such evidence would be especially useful because some behaviours that are consistent with a dislike for unequal outcomes could also be explained by concerns for social image7 or reciprocity8, 9, which do not require a direct aversion towards inequality. Here we use functional MRI to test directly for the existence of inequality-averse social preferences in the human brain. Inequality was created by recruiting pairs of subjects and giving one of them a large monetary endowment. While both subjects evaluated further monetary transfers from the experimenter to themselves and to the other participant, we measured neural responses in the ventral striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex, two areas that have been shown to be involved in the valuation of monetary and primary rewards in both social and non-social contexts10, 11, 12, 13, 14. Consistent with inequality-averse models of social preferences, we find that activity in these areas was more responsive to transfers to others than to self in the ‘high-pay’ subject, whereas the activity of the ‘low-pay’ subject showed the opposite pattern. These results provide direct evidence for the validity of this class of models, and also show that the brain’s reward circuitry is sensitive to both advantageous and disadvantageous inequality.

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