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The Orbitofrontal Cortex, Regret and Decision Formation

Filed in Research News
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The study of decision making would be incomplete without consideration of the role of regret. A recent article seeks its place in the brain.

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The orbitofrontal cortex is a small area of the brain that is located just behind the eyes. It is involved in cognitive and affective functions such as assessing emotional significance of events, anticipating rewards and punishments, adjusting behaviors to adapt to changes in rule contingencies, and inhibiting inappropriate behaviors.

A recent article in Science discusses neural responses associated with regret in gambling tasks.


Facing the consequence of a decision we made can trigger emotions like satisfaction, relief, or regret, which reflect our assessment of what was gained as compared to what would have been gained by making a different decision. These emotions are mediated by a cognitive process known as counterfactual thinking. By manipulating a simple gambling task, we characterized a subjects choices in terms of their anticipated and actual emotional impact. Normal subjects reported emotional responses consistent with counterfactual thinking; they chose to minimize future regret and learned from their emotional experience. Patients with orbitofrontal cortical lesions, however, did not report regret or anticipate negative consequences of their choices. The orbitofrontal cortex has a fundamental role in mediating the experience of regret.


“Previous work implicating the orbitofrontal cortex in emotion-based decision making principally emphasized bottom-up influences of emotions on cortical decision processes. We propose a different role whereby the orbitofrontal cortex exerts a top-down modulation of emotions as a result of counterfactual thinking, after a decision has been made and its consequences can be evaluated. As shown by the model of choice, the feeling of responsibility for the negative result, i.e., regret, reinforces the decisional learning process. The orbitofrontal cortex integrates cognitive and emotional components of the entire process of decision making; its incorrect functioning determines the inability to generate specific emotions such as regret, which has a fundamental role in regulating individual and social behavior.”


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