JARA-BRAIN scientist investigated whether there is a neurobiological correlate in the brain for the processing of abstract value concepts.

Success, sociability, power and family: JARA-BRAIN scientists demonstrated for the first time that a person's fundamental value system decides where and how value-based decisions are made in the brain. Within the framework of a JARA-BRAIN research project, scientists from Prof. Dr. Karl Zilles' Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine, together with colleagues from the departments of Psychology and Management and Social Sciences of the University of Cologne, investigated for the first time whether there is a neurobiological correlate in the brain for the processing of abstract value concepts.

Volunteers asked to evaluate abstract value concepts

"In previous imaging studies on the topic of "values and morals", volunteers were always asked to make decisions based on concrete dilemmas, for instance, if they were able to make a decision involving one person being run over by a train in order to save ten other people," explains project leader Dr. Svenja Caspers. "Such concrete dilemmas only cover a small part of a person's value spectrum, however. In our research project, on the other hand, volunteers had to process abstract value concepts such as 'teamwork', 'family' or 'security'."

For 540 given value pairs, the healthy male and female volunteers had two seconds to decide on a concept which seemed, from their point of view, the most suitable.

Interestingly, it appeared that on the basis of their decision-making behaviour during the experiment participants could be divided into two groups with preferentially different value systems.

Volunteers behaved either in an individualistic or collectivist manner

The group of "individualists" often preferred value concepts which accommodated their own desire for self-fulfilment, whereas the so-called "collectivists" in many cases focused on the values of the group. "In the case of value pairs such as 'success' versus 'family', or 'achievements' versus 'harmony', the difference between the rather individualistic or rather collectivist way of thinking became especially evident," comments Svenja Caspers.

Groups activated completely different areas of the brain on a neurobiological level

Remarkably, on the neurobiological level, completely different brain areas were activated during the decision-making process in the two groups. Whereas with the so-called individualists, the limbic system, especially known for processing emotions, and in particular the amygdala, was active, a completely different network of the brain cortex was found in the case of the so-called collectivists: the parietal and frontal lobes. These are apparently responsible for rational decision-making processes.

"Within the framework of our research project, a surprisingly clear difference was demonstrated in the imaging studies regarding whether a volunteer made value-related decisions more on a rational-cognitive basis in terms of belonging to a group, or on an emotional basis in terms of individualistic values", explains Svenja Caspers. "Thus we showed that the processing of value-based decisions in the brain is characterized by a basic value system which is particular to each one of us and is a result of individual socialization."

These results help to understand which general processing principles are involved when people make value-based decisions irrespective of a specific situation. As a person's value systems may change in the course of a lifetime, it can be assumed that both these processing principles are accessible to everyone in a similar way and are activated differently depending on a person's background.

Link to article in PLoS One

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