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Punishing unfairness: Rewarding or the organization of a reactively aggressive response?

Wednesday, November 06, 2013 — Poster Session I

4:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.

FAES Academic Center (Upper-Level Terrace)




  • M.R. VanTieghem
  • S.F. White
  • S.J Brislin
  • S. Sinclair
  • R.J. Blair


OBJECTIVES: Previous work has suggested that increased striatum activation when punishing unfairness during social exchange paradigms represents a reward response and is the basis of altruistic punishment. However, the response of other regions associated with reward (e.g. ventromedial prefrontal cortex; vmPFC) has not been systematically examined. Moreover, punishment of unfair offers has been associated with activation in basic threat circuitry. We made two opposing sets of predictions. First, if punishing unfair offers is a reward response, we predicted increased modulation of BOLD responses by punishment level in reward-associated regions (i.e. caudate and vmPFC). Second, if punishing unfair offers engages a reactively aggressive response, we predicted increased modulation by punishment level in PAG, but decreased modulation in vmPFC. METHODS: fMRI was conducted utilizing a parametric modulation analysis on 21 healthy adults participating in a social exchange paradigm. RESULTS: Participants showed greater activity in dmPFC, bilateral AIC, caudate/PAG as a function of increased punishment level. Activity in vmPFC and PCC was decreased as a function of increasing punishment level. CONCLUSIONS: The current study shows increased caudate and PAG activation and decreased vmPFC as a function of increased punishment level, consistent with a reactive aggression response, but inconsistent with a reward response.

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