• Neuroeconomics (till 2016)

    Coordinator: Stefania Ottone

    Neuroeconomics (NE) is a new field of study that integrates methods and contributions from different disciplines involved in the study of human decision making, specifically, psychology, neuroscience and economics. In particular, NE integrates experimental economics and game theory with neuroscientific methods, which are characterized by the use of tools examining brain activity, to identify the cerebral networks underlying decision-making processes.

    Scholars involved in this research programme (psychologists and economists), investigate the neurophysiology of economic decisions. They apply this interdisciplinary approach in order to shed light on several human choices that seem to be anomalies according to standard economic theory.


    • Pisoni A, Lo Gerfo E, Ottone S, Ponzano F, Zarri L, Romero Lauro LJ., (2014), Fair play doesn’t matter: MEP modulation as a neurophysiological signature of status quo bias in economic interactions. NeuroImage, 101, 150-158


    Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) studies show that watching others’ movements enhances motor evoked potential (MEPs) amplitude of the muscles involved in the observed action (motor facilitation, MF). MF has been attributed to a mirror neuron system mediated mechanism, causing an excitability increment of primary motor cortex. It is still unclear whether the meaning an action assumes when performed in an interpersonal exchange context could affect MF. This study aims at exploring this issue by measuring MF induced by the observation of the same action coupled with opposite reward values (gain vs loss) in an economic game. Moreover, the interaction frame was manipulated by showing the same actions within different economic games, the Dictator Game (DG) and the Theft Game (TG). Both games involved two players: a Dictator/Thief and a receiver. Experimental participants played the game always as receivers whereas the Dictator/Thief roles were played by our confederates. In each game Dictator/Thief’s choices were expressed by showing a grasping action of one of two cylinders, previously associated with fair/unfair choices. In the DG the dictator decides whether to share (gain condition) or not (no-gain condition) a sum of money with the receiver, while in TGs the thief decides whether to steal (loss condition) or not to steal (no-loss condition) it from the participants. While the experimental subjects watched the videos showing these movements, a single TMS pulse was delivered to their motor hand area and a MEP was recorded from the right FDI muscle. Results show that, in the DG, MF was enhanced by the status quo modification, i.e.MEP amplitude increased when the dictator decided to change the receivers’ status quo and share his/her money, and this was true when the status quo was more salient. The same was true for the TG, where the reverse happened: MF was higher for trials in which the thief decided to steal the participants’ money, thus changing the status quo, in the block in which the status quo maintenance occurred more often. Data support the hypothesis that the economic meaning of the observe d actions differently modulates MEP amplitude, pointing at an influence on MF exerted by a peculiar interaction between economic outcomes and variation of the subjects’ initial status quo


    Work in progress

    • Lo Gerfo, A. Pisoni, S. Ottone, F. Ponzano, L. Zarri, A.Vergallito, D. Fedeli, L.J. Romero Lauro, Prompt to act when desired goals aren’t met: MEP modulation in gain and loss contexts


    When making decisions, people are typically differently sensitive to gains and losses according to the motivational context in which the choice is performed. As hypothesized by the Regulatory Focus Theory (RFT), indeed, goals are supposed to change in relation with the set of possible outcomes. We explored the neurophysiological counterpart of this phenomenon by recording motor evoked potentials (MEPs) from participants observing actions conveying different goal attainment levels, framed in gain and loss contexts, while participating to an economic game. Motor cortex excitability was found to be modulated, more than by the real economic value of the interaction, by goal attainment failure, considered as not achieving the maximal profit in a gain context and not avoiding the greatest snatch in a loss context. The present results provide support for the key predictions of RFT showing a neural signature of goal-attainment failure.


    • Lo Gerfo, A. Pisoni, S. Ottone, F. Ponzano, L. Zarri, A.Vergallito, D. Fedeli, L.J. Romero Lauro, Third-party punishment and empathy: a neuroeconomics experiment


    This is a neuroeconomic experiment, based on transcranic magnetic stimulation (rTMS), aimed at shedding light on the largely unexplored relationship between human brain and the nature of punishing behaviour (the ‘neuroeconomics of punishment’). In particular, we want to test the hypothesis that so called ‘mirror neurons’ – whose key feature is that they activate both when a person performs an action and when the same person observes others performing it – can be seen as the neurological analogue of empathy and that they are at work when fairness-related behaviour like third-party punishment occurs (for a survey on mirror neurons, see Rizzolatti et al., 2001). Consequently, our aim will be to answer the question: is it possible that neutral third parties react to unfairness because they feel inside their brain what the victims feel?

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