Declerck CH, Boone C, Emonds G. When do people cooperate? The neuroeconomics
of prosocial decision making. Brain Cogn. 2013 Feb;81(1):95-117.
Understanding the roots of prosocial behavior is an interdisciplinary research endeavor that has generated an abundance of empirical data across many disciplines. This review integrates research findings from different fields into a novel theoretical framework that can account for when prosocial behavior is likely to occur. Specifically, we propose that the motivation to cooperate (or not), generated by the reward system in the brain (extending from the striatum to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex), is modulated by two neural networks: a cognitive control system (centered on the lateral prefrontal cortex) that processes extrinsic cooperative incentives, and/or a social cognition system (including the temporo-parietal junction, the medial prefrontal cortex and the amygdala) that processes trust and/or threat signals. The independent modulatory influence of incentives and trust on the decision to cooperate is substantiated by a growing body of neuroimaging data and reconciles the apparent paradox between economic versus social rationality in the literature, suggesting that we are in fact wired for both. Furthermore, the theoretical framework can account for substantial behavioral heterogeneity in prosocial behavior. Based on the existing data, we postulate that self-regarding individuals (who are more likely to adopt an economically rational strategy) are more responsive to extrinsic cooperative incentives and therefore rely relatively more on cognitive control to make (un)cooperative decisions, whereas other-regarding individuals (who are more likely to adopt a socially rational strategy) are more sensitive to trust signals to avoid betrayal and recruit relatively more brain activity in the social cognition system. Several additional hypotheses with respect to the neural roots of social preferences are derived from the model and suggested for future research.
6. Concluding remarks and directions for future research
Prosociality includes a wide array of behavior, including mutual cooperation, pure altruism, and the costly act of punishing norm violators. Neurologically, these behaviors are all motivated by neural networks dedicated to reward, indicating that prosocial acts (such as cooperating in a social dilemma) are carried out because they were desired and feel good. However, the underlying reasons for the pleasant feelings associated with cooperative behavior may differ. First, cooperation may be valued because of accruing benefits, making it economically rational. This route to cooperation is made possible through brain regions in the lateral frontal cortex that generate cognitive control and process the presence or absence of extrinsic cooperative incentives. Second, consistent with proponents of social rationality, cooperation can also occur when people expect to experience reward through a “warm glow of giving.” Such intrinsically motivated cooperation yields collective benefits from which all group members may eventually benefit, but it can only be sustained when it exists in concert with a mechanism to detect and deter free-riding. Hence socially rational cooperation is facilitated by a neural network dedicated to social cognition that processes trust signals.