Reward circuitry activation reflects social preferences in the face of cognitive effort

Holly Sullivan-Toole, Ekaterina Dobryakova, Samantha DePasque, Elizabeth Tricomi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Research at the intersection of social neuroscience and cognitive effort is an interesting new area for exploration. There is great potential to broaden our understanding of how social context and cognitive effort processes, currently addressed in disparate literatures, interact with one another. In this paper, we briefly review the literature on cognitive effort, focusing on effort-linked valuation and the gap in the literature regarding cognitive effort in the social domain. Next, we present a study designed to explore valuation processes linked to cognitive effort within the social context of an inequality manipulation. More specifically, we created monetary inequality among the participant (SELF, endowed with $50) and two confederates: one also endowed with $50 (OTHER HIGH) and another with only $5 (OTHER LOW). We then scanned participants using fMRI as they attempted to earn bonus payments for themselves and others through a cognitively effortful feedback-based learning task. Positive feedback produced significantly greater activation than negative feedback in key valuation regions, the ventral striatum (VS) and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), both when participants were performing the task on their own behalf and when earning rewards for others. While reward-related activity in the VS was exaggerated for SELF compared to OTHER HIGH for both positive and negative feedback, activity in the vmPFC did not distinguish between recipients in the group-level results. Furthermore, participants naturally fell into two groups: those most engaged when playing for themselves and those who reported engagement for others. While Self-Engaged participants showed differences between the SELF and both OTHER conditions in the VS and vmPFC, Other-Engaged participants only showed an attenuated response to negative feedback for OTHER HIGH compared to SELF in the VS and no differences between recipient conditions in the vmPFC. Together, this work shows the importance of individual differences and the fragility of advantageous inequality aversion in the face of cognitive effort, highlighting the need to study cognitive effort in the social domain.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)55-66
Number of pages12
StatePublished - Feb 4 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


  • Cognitive effort
  • Inequality aversion
  • Prosocial, ventral striatum, vmPFC
  • Social preferences


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