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Winning Is Its Own Reward

April 27, 2010
Written by: , Filed in: Neuroradiology
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People who hunger for rewards try hard to win at every task, even when they know they won’t actually be getting a tangible reward. And scans suggest that the brains of such reward-seekers deliberately ready themselves for battle once they recognize that they’re in a competitive situation.

That’s the conclusion of neuroscientists at Washington University in St. Louis. At first, it may not seem too surprising. After all, some folks feel compelled to win at everything, whether it’s beating out a colleague for a big promotion or trouncing a 4-year-old at Chutes and Ladders.

But it turns out that the individuals categorized as most reward-driven actually improved their performances more (relative to the less reward-driven) on tasks that paid nothing, not the tasks that carried a monetary reward.

The researchers tested 31 randomly selected individuals, using word games. First, a battery of personality tests rated the subjects’ degree of competitiveness and their sensitivity to financial rewards. Then, subjects were given a few seconds to memorize five words. After a 3.5-second interval, they were given a word and asked to say whether it had been among the five they were supposed to have memorized.

In some trials, the subjects knew they’d get nothing regardless of whether the answer was correct. In others, a quick and accurate answer was worth either 25 cents or 75 cents.

The study’s coauthors, Koji Jimura, PhD, and Todd Braver, PhD, thought the most money-motivated subjects would slack off in trials that did not pay. Instead, those subjects did better when they were playing just for fun. (One does wonder if the results might have been different had the reward been boosted from a quarter to, say, 10 bucks.)

According to a Washington University press release about the study:

The brain scans taken using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) showed a change in the pattern of activity during the non-rewarded trials within the lateral prefrontal cortex (PFC), located right behind the outer corner of the eyebrow, an area that is strongly linked to intelligence, goal-driven behavior and cognitive strategies.

The researchers suggested that this indicates a shift to what they call “proactive cognitive control.”

In other words, once the rewarding motivational context is established in the brain indicating there is a goal-driven contest at hand, the brain actually rallies its neuronal troops and readies itself for the next trial, whether it’s for money or not.

More research on the brain circuits involved could shed light on the nature of motivation. Researchers might be able to create more effective motivational strategies, for example, or develop drug therapies to treat patients with motivational deficiencies.

The results were published April 26 in the early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Related seminar: Neuroradiology Review (available in DVD and MP4 formats)


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