Prof. Xiaolin Zhou: Neurocomputational evidence that conflicting prosocial motives guide distributive justice


In the history of humanity, most conflicts within and between societies have originated from perceived inequality in resource distribution. How humans achieve and maintain distributive justice has therefore been an intensely studied issue. However, most research on the corresponding psychological processes has focused on inequality aversion and has been largely agnostic of other motives that may either align or oppose this behavioral tendency. Here we provide behavioral, computational, and neuroimaging evidence that distribution decisions are guided by three distinct motives—inequality aversion, harm aversion, and rank reversal aversion—that interact with each other and can also deter individuals from pursuing equality. At the neural level, we show that these three motives are encoded by separate neural systems, compete for representation in various brain areas processing equality and harm signals, and are integrated in the striatum, which functions as a crucial hub for translating the motives to behavior. Our findings provide a comprehensive framework for understanding the cognitive and biological processes by which multiple prosocial motives are coordinated in the brain to guide redistribution behaviors. This framework enhances our understanding of the brain mechanisms underlying equality-related behavior, suggests possible neural origins of individual differences in social preferences, and provides a new pathway to understand the cognitive and neural basis of clinical disorders with impaired social functions.

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