Investment and repayment in a trust game after ventromedial prefrontal damage

Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 7 (2013)
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Abstract

Although trust and reciprocity are ubiquitous in social exchange, their neurobiological substrate remains largely unknown. Here, we investigated the effect of damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC)—a brain region critical for valuing social information—on individuals’ decisions in a trust game and in a risk game. In the trust game, one player, the investor, is endowed with a sum of money, which she can keep or invest. The amount she decides to invest is tripled and sent to the other player, the trustee, who then decides what fraction to return to the investor. In separate runs, ten patients with focal bilateral damage to the vmPFC and control participants made decision while playing in the role of either investor or trustee with different anonymous counterparts in each run. A risk game was also included in which the investor faced exactly the same decisions as in the trust game, but a random device (i.e., a computer), not another player, determined the final payoffs. Results showed that vmPFC patients’ investments were not modulated by the type of opponent player (e.g., human vs. computer) present in the environment. Thus, vmPFC patients showed comparable risk-taking preferences both in social (trust game) and nonsocial (risk game) contexts. In stark contrast, control participants were less willing to take risk and invest when they believed that they were interacting with people than a computer. Furthermore, when acted as trustee, vmPFC patients made lower back transfers toward investors, thereby showing less reciprocity behavior. Taken together, these results indicate that social valuation and emotion subserved by vmPFC have a critical role in trusting and reciprocity decisions. The present findings support the hypothesis that vmPFC damage may impair affective systems specifically designed for mediating social transaction with other individuals.

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