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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2014 Jul 29;111(30):10978-83. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1405725111. Epub 2014 Jul 14.

Neural correlates of dueling affective reactions to win-win choices.

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Department of Psychology, Center for Brain Science, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138;Princeton Neuroscience Institute, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08540; and
Department of Psychology, Center for Brain Science, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138;Departments of Psychiatry and Radiology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Charlestown, MA 02129.


Win-win choices cause anxiety, often more so than decisions lacking the opportunity for a highly desired outcome. These anxious feelings can paradoxically co-occur with positive feelings, raising important implications for individual decision styles and general well-being. Across three studies, people chose between products that varied in personal value. Participants reported feeling most positive and most anxious when choosing between similarly high-valued products. Behavioral and neural results suggested that this paradoxical experience resulted from parallel evaluations of the expected outcome (inducing positive affect) versus the cost of choosing a response (inducing anxiety). Positive feelings were reduced when there was no high-value option, and anxiety was reduced when only one option was highly valued. Dissociable regions within the striatum and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) tracked these dueling affective reactions during choice. Ventral regions, associated with stimulus valuation, tracked positive feelings and the value of the best item. Dorsal regions, associated with response valuation, tracked anxiety. In addition to tracking anxiety, the dorsal mPFC was associated with conflict during the current choice, and activity levels across individual items predicted whether that choice would later be reversed during an unexpected reevaluation phase. By revealing how win-win decisions elicit responses in dissociable brain systems, these results help resolve the paradox of win-win choices. They also provide insight into behaviors that are associated with these two forms of affect, such as why we are pulled toward good options but may still decide to delay or avoid choosing among them.


decision making; emotion; functional MRI; reward

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