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J Neurosci. 2016 Aug 31;36(35):9217-26. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0595-16.2016.

Intention Modulates the Effect of Punishment Threat in Norm Enforcement via the Lateral Orbitofrontal Cortex.

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  • 1Center for Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Department of Psychology, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China, Singapore Institute for Neurotechnology (SINAPSE), Center for Life Sciences, National University of Singapore, Singapore 117456, Singapore.
  • 2Center for Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Department of Psychology, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China.
  • 3Center for Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Department of Psychology, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China, Key Laboratory of Machine Perception (Ministry of Education), Beijing Key Laboratory of Behavior and Mental Health, and PKU-IDG/McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Peking University, Beijing 100871, China


Although economic theories suggest that punishment threat is crucial for maintaining social norms, counterexamples are noted in which punishment threat hinders norm compliance. Such discrepancy may arise from the intention behind the threat: unintentionally introduced punishment threat facilitates, whereas intentionally introduced punishment threat hinders, norm compliance. Here, we combined a dictator game and fMRI to investigate how intention modulates the effect of punishment threat on norm compliance and the neural substrates of this modulation. We also investigated whether this modulation can be influenced by brain stimulation. Human participants divided an amount of money between themselves and a partner. The partner (intentionally) or a computer program (unintentionally) decided to retain or waive the right to punish the participant upon selfish distribution. Compared with the unintentional condition, participants allocated more when the partner intentionally waived the power of punishment, but less when the partner retained such power. The right lateral orbitofrontal cortex (rLOFC) showed higher activation when the partner waived compared with when the computer waived or when the partner retained the power. The functional connectivity between the rLOFC and the brain network associated with intention/mentalizing processing was predictive of the allocation difference induced by intention. Moreover, inhibition or activation of the rLOFC by brain stimulation decreased or increased, respectively, the participants' reliance on the partner's intention during monetary allocation. These findings demonstrate that the perceived intention of punishment threat plays a crucial role in norm compliance and that the LOFC is casually involved in the implementation of intention-based cooperative decisions.


Does punishment threat facilitate or hinder norm enforcement? So far, cognitive neuroscience research offers equivocal evidence. By directly manipulating the intention behind punishment threat, we demonstrate that intention modulates the effectiveness of punishment threat. Moreover, we show that inhibition or activation of the right lateral orbitofrontal cortex (rLOFC) decreased or increased the effect of punishment threat in the intentional context, but not in the unintentional context, suggesting the casual involvement of the rLOFC in intention-based cooperative decisions.


intention; lateral orbitofrontal cortex; norm compliance; punishment threat; tDCS

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