JOURNAL ARTICLE

Computations and connectivity underlying aversive counterfactuals

Colleen Mills-Finnerty, Catherine Hanson, Mohannad Khadr, Stephen Jose Hanson
Brain Connectivity 2020 August 25
32842766

BACKGROUND: Mentally simulating counterfactuals (scenarios that have not actually occurred) is a sophisticated human cognitive function underlying creativity, planning, and daydreaming. One example is the "would you rather" game, in which forced choices are made between outlandish negative counterfactuals.

METHODS: We measured behavioral and neural correlates while participants made "would you rather" choices framed as approaching or avoiding aversive counterfactual scenarios (e.g. illnesses, car accidents).

RESULTS: We found in two independent cohorts that participants were highly susceptible to framing effects when making these decisions, taking significantly longer to respond to approach frames compared to avoidance. Brain imaging showed that choices to approach and avoid resulted in a pattern of activation consistent with a network associated with responding to aversive stimuli, identified via a coordinate-based meta-analysis of 238 studies. Bayesian graph connectivity analysis showed that network connectivity differed by choice frame, with significantly stronger connectivity for approach choices compared to avoidance choices among primarily limbic nodes (putamen, insula, caudate, and amygdala). Computational modeling of behavior revealed that approach frames led to significantly longer non-decision times, increased evidence required to make decisions, and faster evidence accumulation than avoidance frames. Stronger network connectivity between corticostriatal and limbic regions was associated with rate of evidence accumulation and length of non-decision time during approach choices. For avoidance choices, prefrontal connectivity was related to non-decision time.

CONCLUSIONS: These results suggest that "would you rather" decisions about aversive counterfactuals differentially recruit limbic circuit connectivity based on choice frame.

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