Mar 10, 2012

Honesty, fairness, and serotonin

How does one deal with unfair behaviors? This subject has long been investigated by various disciplines including philosophy, psychology, economics, and biology. However, our reactions to unfairness differ from one individual to another. Experimental economics studies using the ultimatum game (UG), in which players must decide whether to accept or reject fair or unfair offers, have also shown that there are substantial individual differences in reaction to unfairness. However, little is known about psychological as well as neurobiological mechanisms of this observation. We combined a molecular imaging technique, an economics game, and a personality inventory to elucidate the neurobiological mechanism of heterogeneous reactions to unfairness. Contrary to the common belief that aggressive personalities (impulsivity or hostility) are related to the high rejection rate of unfair offers in UG, we found that individuals with apparently peaceful personalities (straightforwardness and trust) rejected more often and were engaged in personally costly forms of retaliation. Furthermore, individuals with a low level of serotonin transporters in the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN) are honest and trustful, and thus cannot tolerate unfairness, being candid in expressing their frustrations. In other words, higher central serotonin transmission might allow us to behave adroitly and opportunistically, being good at playing games while pursuing self-interest. We provide unique neurobiological evidence to account for individual differences of reaction to unfairness.
That is the abstract of the new paper "Honesty mediates the relationship between serotonin and reaction to unfairness" by Takahashi et al (January 2012). Alas, I did not find a full paper available online. It was published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the US. The abstract is revealing. 

Addendum: By the way, this might not be news for many. I heard this argument before from Tyler Cowen - if I remember correctly. 

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