People are particularly sensitive to injustice. Accordingly, deeper knowledge regarding the processes that underlie the perception of injustice, and the subsequent decisions to either punish transgressors or compensate victims, is of important social value. By combining a novel decision-making paradigm with functional neuroimaging, we identified specific brain networks that are involved with both the perception of, and response to, social injustice, with reward-related regions preferentially involved in punishment compared with compensation. Developing a computational model of punishment allowed for disentangling the neural mechanisms and psychological motives underlying decisions of whether to punish and, subsequently, of how severely to punish. Results show that the neural mechanisms underlying punishment differ depending on whether one is directly affected by the injustice, or whether one is a third-party observer of a violation occurring to another. Specifically, the anterior insula was involved in decisions to punish following harm, whereas, in third-party scenarios, we found amygdala activity associated with punishment severity. Additionally, we used a pharmacological intervention using oxytocin, and found that oxytocin influenced participants’ fairness expectations, and in particular enhanced the frequency of low punishments. Together, these results not only provide more insight into the fundamental brain mechanisms underlying punishment and compensation, but also illustrate the importance of taking an explorative, multimethod approach when unraveling the complex components of everyday decision-making.

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ERIM Top-Core Articles
The Journal of Neuroscience
Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), Erasmus University

Stallen, M., Rossi, F. (Filippo), Heijne, A. (Amber), Smidts, A., de Dreu, C., & Sanfey, A. (2018). Neurobiological mechanisms of responding to injustice. The Journal of Neuroscience, 38(12), 2944–2954. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1242-17.2018