A brain region called the medial orbitofrontal cortex mediates the influence of emotions like regret on decision-making, shows a functional imaging study in the September issue of Nature Neuroscience.
People offered a certain $50 or a 1 in 100 chance of winning $5000 will usually choose the sure thing. But people are more likely to take the risky alternative if they know they'll find out later whether they would have won the gamble. Economists attribute this behavior to a desire to avoid the regret that would result from knowing that one has passed up a big prize.
Subjects in the study were offered a choice of two gambles, one riskier than the other, and the authors induced regret on some trials by providing outcome information for both gambles. As the experiment proceeded, subjects modified their choices to reduce the potential for regret, and activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala increased. This pattern of brain activity was seen after a choice that inspired regret (when the riskier gamble that was not chosen paid off), and when the subjects were deciding which gamble to choose. This pattern of activity was absent when subjects' 'choices' were determined by a computer -- indicating that personal responsibility was important for activating these areas.
Previous work has shown that patients with lesions to the orbitofrontal cortex have difficulty making appropriate choices in such gambling tasks, lending support to the authors' conclusions.
Angela Sirigu (CNRS, Institut des Sciences Cognitives, Bron, France)
Abstract available online.
(C) Nature Neuroscience press release.
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