Neural responses to intention and benefit appraisal are critical in distinguishing gratitude and joy

Guanmin Liu, Zaixu Cui, Hongbo Yu, Pia Rotshtein, Fangyun Zhao, Haixu Wang, Kaiping Peng, Jie Sui*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


Gratitude and joy are critical for promoting well-being. However, the differences between the two emotions and corresponding neural correlates are not understood. Here we addressed these issues by eliciting the two emotions using the same stimuli in an fMRI task. In this help reception task, participants imagined them in a situation where they need financial aid. Critically, we manipulated the benefactor’s intention to provide help and the value of the benefit. Behaviorally, gratitude was stronger than joy when the benefactor-intention was strong and the benefit-value was low compared to other conditions. In parallel, gratitude activated mentalizing-related (e.g. precuneus) and reward-related regions (e.g. putamen) more strongly than joy in corresponding conditions compared to others. Moreover, gratitude was more negatively (or less positively) encoded in the region associated with mentalizing (i.e. the left superior temporal gyrus) than joy. Multivariate pattern analysis further demonstrated that the modulation patterns of benefactor-intention and benefit-value in mentalizing-related (e.g. precuneus, temporo-parietal junction) and reward-related regions (e.g. putamen, perigenual anterior cingulate/ventromedial prefrontal cortex) could distinguish the two emotions. The findings suggest that benefactor-intention and benefit-value appraisal and their neural correlates are critical in distinguishing gratitude and joy. Direct implications for gratitude interventions were discussed.

Original languageEnglish
Article number7864
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (No. 31170973 and No. 31471001) and by the Leverhulme Trust (RPG-2019-010). We would like to thank Dongyan Wu for her technical support.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020, The Author(s).

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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