Academic journal article International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy

Coping with Bargains in the Ultimatum Game: The Triple Circuit Hypothesis

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychology and Psychological Therapy

Coping with Bargains in the Ultimatum Game: The Triple Circuit Hypothesis

Article excerpt

In the ongoing discussion on the neurobiological basis of decision-making, several attempts have been made to define how different patterns of thought (more specifically named 'cognitive schemas'), brain circuits, and neurochemical compounds affect the magnitude of offers and the choice to accept/reject one. One of the most remarkable findings to date is that intrinsically cultural cognitive schemas (e.g. moral feelings and associated representations) bias the tendency to maximize immediate gains, at the same time that specific brain lesions reverse this tendency (Greene, 2007; Knoch, Pascual-Leone, Meyer, Treyer, & Fehr, 2006).

Many behavioral tasks are usually applied to the understanding of the nature and structure of cognitive schemas that may affect the tendency to maximize gains for both proposers and responders, but none has received the attention that has been directed to the Ultimatum Game (UG), created by Rubinstein (1982). The UG is a zero-sum, two-player game in which participants alternate as proposer and respondent of monetary offers, and together meet the challenge of either reaching an agreement or facing a mutual loss. The game is at the core of the emerging field of neuroeconomics (for a presentation of the field: Sanfey, Loewenstein, McClure, & Cohen, 2006; for a discussion on the role of the UG: Sanfey, 2007), where it is often designated as a Theory of Mind game (Behrens, Hunt, & Rushworth, 2009), in the sense that it is based upon the prospection of the intentions of the opponent.

Several studies have linked the cognitive schemas activated during rounds of UG to the activation of specific brain areas (Knoch, et al., 2006; Michael Koenigs & Daniel Tranel, 2007; Sanfey, Rilling, Aronson, Nystrom, & Cohen, 2003). More recently, neurophysiological studies based on the 'acute tryptophan depletion' paradigm (ATD) showed a direct relation between tryptophan depletion and rejection rates (Crockett, Clark, Tabibnia, Lieberman, & Robbins, 2008; Emanuele, Brondino, Bertona, Re, & Geroldi, 2008), hence suggesting a pivotal role for serotonin in the evaluation of bargains. These findings complement conclusions regarding the positive correlation between testosterone levels and rejection rates (Burnham, 2007; for a replication: Zak, et al., 2009; for a study challenging these findings: Eisenegger, Snozzi, Heinrichs, & Fehr, 2010), as well as inverse correlations to the presence of omega-3 fatty acids (Emanuele, Brondino, Re, Bertona, & Geroldi, 2009).

Considering that both omega-3 (Yao, et al., 2004) and testosterone (Fink, Sumner, Rosie, Wilson, & McQueen, 1999) directly affect serotonin levels, it is reasonable to assume that both could be part of a neurobiological hypothesis, as addressed by Enzo Emmanuele and collaborators with their 'serotonergic hypothesis' (Emanuele, Bertona, Re, & Brondino, 2009; Emanuele, et al., 2008), or even further, by a hypothesis capable of integrating both the neuroanatomical and neurophysiological findings.

From that perspective, it is interesting to note that in order to achieve its maximum soundness, a neurobiological hypothesis of the kind must first model the most significant stages of the decision-making dynamics in the UG and then conceive the neurobiological basis of each of these stages. Many important features of this integrated process can be lost, as one disregards the stages of decomposing and understanding each step, in order to present it as a direct function of neurobiological activity.

This paper takes for granted that to achieve such goal, we need a new and broader cognitive and neurobiological model, which must be unambiguous, falsifiable, and at the same time includes much more than the direct relation between behavioral tendencies and specific neurochemical compounds. Our starting point is that the UG can represent an appropriate venue to study the cognitive and neurobiological basis of fairness. …

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