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PLoS One. 2013 Aug 22;8(8):e73531. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0073531. eCollection 2013.

What do I want and when do I want it: brain correlates of decisions made for self and other.

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Institute of Psychology, RWTH Aachen University, Aachen, Germany.

Erratum in

  • PLoS One. 2013;8(9). doi:10.1371/annotation/4a0ce951-49b2-4533-9cf0-773b5aeabb41.


A number of recent functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) studies on intertemporal choice behavior have demonstrated that so-called emotion- and reward-related brain areas are preferentially activated by decisions involving immediately available (but smaller) rewards as compared to (larger) delayed rewards. This pattern of activation was not seen, however, when intertemporal choices were made for another (unknown) individual, which speaks to that activation having been triggered by self-relatedness. In the present fMRI study, we investigated the brain correlates of individuals who passively observed intertemporal choices being made either for themselves or for an unknown person. We found higher activation within the ventral striatum, medial prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortex, pregenual anterior cingulate cortex, and posterior cingulate cortex when an immediate reward was possible for the observer herself, which is in line with findings from studies in which individuals actively chose immediately available rewards. Additionally, activation in the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, posterior cingulate cortex, and precuneus was higher for choices that included immediate options than for choices that offered only delayed options, irrespective of who was to be the beneficiary. These results indicate that (1) the activations found in active intertemporal decision making are also present when the same decisions are merely observed, thus supporting the assumption that a robust brain network is engaged in immediate gratification; and (2) with immediate rewards, certain brain areas are activated irrespective of whether the observer or another person is the beneficiary of a decision, suggesting that immediacy plays a more general role for neural activation. An explorative analysis of participants' brain activation corresponding to chosen rewards, further indicates that activation in the aforementioned brain areas depends on the mere presence, availability, or actual reception of immediate rewards.

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