Prof. Xiaolin Zhou's Lab: Affective evaluation of others' altruistic decisions under risk and ambiguity




Gratitude arises when one is the target of an altruistic decision, particularly when this decision incurs cost to the agent. Here we examined how individuals evaluate others’ altruistic decisions under risky (uncertainty with known probabilities) and ambiguous (uncertainty with unknown probabilities) costs and respond with gratitude and reciprocity. Participants played an interactive game in an fMRI scanner in which they would receive painful electric shocks. An anonymous co-player either intentionally (Human conditions) or unintentionally (Computer conditions) decided whether to help the participant reduce half of the pain by undertaking an amount of pain (i.e., cost) with varying level of uncertainty (Certain vs. Risky vs. Ambiguous). Participants could then transfer monetary points to the co-player knowing that the co-player was unaware of this transfer. Behaviorally, monetary allocation and gratitude rating increased as the uncertainty level of cost increased in Human conditions; these effects were reduced in Computer conditions. The effect of cost uncertainty on gratitude was mediated by the perceived kind intention behind the help. FMRI revealed both shared and differential neurocognitive substrates for evaluating the benefactor’s altruistic decisions under risk and ambiguity: both were associated with fear- and anxiety-related processes, involving right lateral orbitofrontal cortex and anterior insula; ambiguity additionally recruited mentalizing- and conflict monitoring-related processes, involving dorsal medial prefrontal cortex and dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. These findings underscore the crucial role of social uncertainty perception in the generation of gratitude.


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