The role of the neural reward circuitry in self-referential optimistic belief updates

Bojana Kuzmanovic, Anneli Jefferson, Kai Vogeley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Citations (Scopus)
266 Downloads (Pure)


People are motivated to adopt the most favorable beliefs about their future because positive beliefs are experienced as rewarding. However, it is so far inconclusive whether brain regions known to represent reward values are involved in the generation of optimistically biased belief updates. To address this question, we investigated neural correlates of belief updates that result in relatively better future outlooks, and therefore imply a positive subjective value of the judgment outcome. Participants estimated the probability of experiencing different adverse future events. After being provided with population base rates of these events, they had the opportunity to update their initial estimates. Participants made judgments concerning themselves or a similar other, and were confronted with desirable or undesirable base rates (i.e. lower or higher than their initial estimates).
Belief updates were smaller following undesirable than desirable information, and this optimism bias was stronger for judgments regarding oneself than others. During updating, the positive value of self-related updates was reflected by neural activity in the subgenual ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) that increased both with increasing sizes of favorable updates, and with decreasing sizes of unfavorable updates. During the processing of self-related undesirable base rates, increasing activity in a network including the dorsomedial PFC, hippocampus, thalamus and ventral striatum predicted decreasing update sizes.
Thus, key regions of the neural reward circuitry contributed to the generation of optimistically biased self-referential belief updates. While the vmPFC tracked subjective values of belief updates, a network including the ventral striatum was involved in neglecting information calling for unfavorable updates.
Original languageEnglish
Early online date13 Feb 2016
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 13 Feb 2016


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