Causes of social reward differences encoded in human brain

Alexander Vostroknutov, Philippe N. Tobler, Aldo Rustichini

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


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, rewardrelated 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 (US)
Pages (from-to)1403-1412
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of neurophysiology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Mar 2012


  • Merit
  • Rewards coding
  • Skill-luck


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