Be nice if you have to : the neurobiological roots of strategic fairness

S. Strang*, J. Gross, T. Schuhmann, A.M. Riedl, B. Weber, A.T. Sack

*Corresponding author for this work

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Social norms, such as treating others fairly regardless of kin relations, are essential for the functioning of human societies. Their existence may explain why humans, among all species, show unique patterns of pro-social behaviour (Sethi and Somanathan, 1996; Gintis, 2000; Ostrom, 2000; Fehr and Fischbacher, 2003; Gintis, 2003). The maintenance of social norms often depends on external enforcement, as in the absence of credible sanctioning mechanisms pro-social behaviour deteriorates quickly (Fehr and Gachter, 2000; Fehr and Fischbacher, 2004). This sanction-dependent pro-social behaviour suggests that humans strategically adapt their behaviour and act selfishly if possible but control selfish impulses if necessary. Recent studies point at the role of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) in controlling selfish impulses (Wout et al., 2005; Knoch et al., 2006; Knoch et al., 2009; Ruff et al., 2013). We test, whether the DLPFC is indeed involved in the control of selfish impulses as well as the strategic acquisition of this control mechanism. Using repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, we provide evidence for the causal role of the right DLPFC in strategic fairness. Since the DLPFC is phylogenetically one of the latest developed neocortical regions (Fuster, 2001) this could explain why complex norm systems exist in humans but not in other social animals.

data source: lab experiment data, available from authors upon request
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)790-796
JournalSocial Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience
Issue number6
Early online date3 Sep 2014
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2015

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