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Neural reward representations enable utilitarian welfare maximization


Soutschek, Alexander; Burke, Christopher J; Kang, Pyungwon; Wieland, Nuri; Netzer, Nick; Tobler, Philippe N (2024). Neural reward representations enable utilitarian welfare maximization. Journal of Neuroscience, 44(21):e2376232024.

Abstract

From deciding which meal to prepare for our guests to trading-off the pro-environmental effects of climate protection measures against their economic costs, we often must consider the consequences of our actions for the well-being of others (welfare). Vexingly, the tastes and views of others can vary widely. To maximize welfare according to the utilitarian philosophical tradition, decision makers facing conflicting preferences of others should choose the option that maximizes the sum of subjective value (utility) of the entire group. This notion requires comparing intensities of preferences across individuals. However, it remains unclear whether such comparisons are possible at all, and (if they are possible) how they might be implemented in the brain. Here, we show that female and male participants can both learn the preferences of others by observing their choices, and represent these preferences on a common scale to make utilitarian welfare decisions. On the neural level, multivariate support vector regressions revealed that a distributed activity pattern in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), a brain region previously associated with reward processing, represented preference strength of others. Strikingly, also the utilitarian welfare of others was represented in the VMPFC and relied on the same neural code as the estimated preferences of others. Together, our findings reveal that humans can behave as if they maximized utilitarian welfare using a specific utility representation and that the brain enables such choices by repurposing neural machinery processing the reward others receive.Significance statementIn many situations politicians and civilians strive to maximize the welfare of social groups. If the preferences of group members are in conflict, identifying the utilitarian welfare-maximizing option requires that decision makers can compare the strengths of conflicting preferences on a common scale. Yet, there is a fundamental lack of understanding which brain mechanisms enable such comparisons of conflicting utilities. Here, we show that brain regions involved in reward processing compute welfare comparisons by representing the preferences of others with a common neural code. This provides a neurobiological mechanism to compute utilitarian welfare maximization as desired by moral philosophy in the Humean tradition.

Abstract

From deciding which meal to prepare for our guests to trading-off the pro-environmental effects of climate protection measures against their economic costs, we often must consider the consequences of our actions for the well-being of others (welfare). Vexingly, the tastes and views of others can vary widely. To maximize welfare according to the utilitarian philosophical tradition, decision makers facing conflicting preferences of others should choose the option that maximizes the sum of subjective value (utility) of the entire group. This notion requires comparing intensities of preferences across individuals. However, it remains unclear whether such comparisons are possible at all, and (if they are possible) how they might be implemented in the brain. Here, we show that female and male participants can both learn the preferences of others by observing their choices, and represent these preferences on a common scale to make utilitarian welfare decisions. On the neural level, multivariate support vector regressions revealed that a distributed activity pattern in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), a brain region previously associated with reward processing, represented preference strength of others. Strikingly, also the utilitarian welfare of others was represented in the VMPFC and relied on the same neural code as the estimated preferences of others. Together, our findings reveal that humans can behave as if they maximized utilitarian welfare using a specific utility representation and that the brain enables such choices by repurposing neural machinery processing the reward others receive.Significance statementIn many situations politicians and civilians strive to maximize the welfare of social groups. If the preferences of group members are in conflict, identifying the utilitarian welfare-maximizing option requires that decision makers can compare the strengths of conflicting preferences on a common scale. Yet, there is a fundamental lack of understanding which brain mechanisms enable such comparisons of conflicting utilities. Here, we show that brain regions involved in reward processing compute welfare comparisons by representing the preferences of others with a common neural code. This provides a neurobiological mechanism to compute utilitarian welfare maximization as desired by moral philosophy in the Humean tradition.

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Additional indexing

Item Type:Journal Article, refereed, original work
Communities & Collections:03 Faculty of Economics > Department of Economics
Dewey Decimal Classification:330 Economics
Uncontrolled Keywords:Utilitarianism, VMPFC, neural reward system, social decision neuroscience, multivariate decoding
Scope:Discipline-based scholarship (basic research)
Language:English
Date:22 May 2024
Deposited On:14 May 2024 15:10
Last Modified:05 Jul 2024 08:33
Publisher:Society for Neuroscience
ISSN:0270-6474
OA Status:Green
Free access at:Publisher DOI. An embargo period may apply.
Publisher DOI:https://doi.org/10.1523/jneurosci.2376-23.2024
  • Content: Accepted Version
  • Language: English