Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Lesion and imaging studies have implicated the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) in economic decisions and social interactions, yet its exact functions remain unclear. Here, we investigated the hypothesis that the vmPFC represents the subjective value or desirability of future outcomes during social decision-making. Both vmPFC-damaged patients and control participants acted as the responder in a single-round ultimatum game. To test outcome valuation, we contrasted concrete, immediately available gains with abstract, future ones. To test social valuation, we contrasted interactions with a human partner and those involving a computer. We found that, compared to controls, vmPFC patients substantially reduced their acceptance rate of unfair offers from a human partner, but only when financial gains were presented as abstract amounts to be received later. When the gains were visible and readily available, the vmPFC patients' acceptance of unfair offers was normal. Furthermore, unlike controls, vmPFC patients did not distinguish between unfair offers from a human agent and those from a computerized opponent. We conclude that the vmPFC encodes the expected value of abstract, future goals in a common neural currency that takes into account both reward and social signals in order to optimize economic decision-making.