How We Optimize Decisions for Mutual Benefit

Summary: Researchers shed light on how human brains handle decisions that impact others, particularly when options conflict. In their study, participants engaged in tasks designed to assess their preference integration and decision-making processes for both personal and others’ benefits.

By using brain imaging techniques, the study showed that the reward system in the brain is actively involved in both tracking personal preferences and integrating the preferences of others to optimize mutual outcomes. This research highlights the neural pathways that enable us to make decisions that consider and enhance the welfare of everyone involved.

Key Facts:

  1. The study required participants to learn and integrate their own food preferences with those of others to make decisions beneficial to all, a process tracked via brain imaging.
  2. Activity in the reward regions of the brain was key not just for tracking one’s own preferences but also for the preferences of others and executing decisions that maximized welfare for everyone.
  3. This research provides insight into the neurological basis of decision-making that involves balancing conflicting interests for the mutual benefit of involved parties.

Source: SfN

Making decisions that impact the lives of others involves considering the options available and selecting ones that will provide optimal benefit to them.

This happens on a broad scale, from getting a gift for a friend to deciding which politician to elect for the betterment of societal welfare to being a politician and choosing how best to improve the quality of life for a country’s inhabitants.

In a collaboration between Ludwig Maximilian University Munich and the University of Zurich, Alexander Soutschek and colleagues investigated how our brains compare conflicting options for the mutual benefit of all. 

This shows people shaking hands.
It was also involved in the execution of decisions that were optimal for all participants in the welfare maximization task. Credit: Neuroscience News

Their study is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Human participants fasted for four hours prior to the study and completed tasks in which they rated how much they liked food items, associated symbols with food quantities, and predicted the food preferences of others whose preferences were opposite to their own after observing them make food choices.

Participants then completed a final task in which they assigned different quantities of food to both themselves and others whose food preferences were opposite to their own (a “welfare maximization task”).

The scientists discovered that people learned the preferences of others and integrated these with their own preferences to make mutually beneficial decisions, not decisions benefiting only themselves.

An imaging technique and complex analyses revealed that the reward system of the brain was active during tracking of participants’ own preferences as well as the preferences of others. It was also involved in the execution of decisions that were optimal for all participants in the welfare maximization task.

These findings suggest that reward-related brain regions contribute to how people make decisions benefiting others despite conflicting preferences.

About this social neuroscience research news

Author: Alexander Soutschek
Source: SfN
Contact: Alexander Soutschek – SfN
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: Closed access.
Neural reward representations enable utilitarian welfare maximization” by Alexander Soutschek et al. Journal of Neuroscience


Neural reward representations enable utilitarian welfare maximization

From deciding which meal to prepare for our guests to trading-off the pro-environmental effects of climate protection measures against their economic costs, we often must consider the consequences of our actions for the well-being of others (welfare). Vexingly, the tastes and views of others can vary widely.

To maximize welfare according to the utilitarian philosophical tradition, decision makers facing conflicting preferences of others should choose the option that maximizes the sum of subjective value (utility) of the entire group.

This notion requires comparing intensities of preferences across individuals. However, it remains unclear whether such comparisons are possible at all, and (if they are possible) how they might be implemented in the brain.

Here, we show that female and male participants can both learn the preferences of others by observing their choices, and represent these preferences on a common scale to make utilitarian welfare decisions.

On the neural level, multivariate support vector regressions revealed that a distributed activity pattern in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), a brain region previously associated with reward processing, represented preference strength of others.

Strikingly, also the utilitarian welfare of others was represented in the VMPFC and relied on the same neural code as the estimated preferences of others.

Together, our findings reveal that humans can behave as if they maximized utilitarian welfare using a specific utility representation and that the brain enables such choices by repurposing neural machinery processing the reward others receive.

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