Tag Archives: reward

People subconsciously believe that the world is ‘fair’ and that those who suffer will be rewarded later on

A new study published in the British Journal of Social Psychology reports on one of our more curious subconscious mechanisms. People expect their suffering to mean they have a greater chance of getting a reward in the future, the team explains.

Image credits Christine Schmidt.

We like to think of ourselves as fully factual, logical people, but that’s not always the case. Our brains still rely on ancient mechanisms to get us through the day, week, month, or year — and those tools don’t always follow cold facts. There’s nothing wrong or shameful about that, but it does pay to know ourselves (and what makes us tick) better. A new study looks at one such mechanism and delves into its roots.

I suffer, therefore I am (deserving)

The team reports that there are two main theories for why people believe suffering now means a greater reward later on. The first is known as the “just-world maintenance” hypothesis, which posits that people often believe we’re living in a just world where everyone gets what they deserve. In this light, unnecessary suffering would need compensation later on to restore the balance and make the world just. In essence, that their suffering will be compensated later on.

The second one is known as the “virtuous suffering” explanation, which holds that experiencing suffering can improve our moral character. This belief has been hinted at by previous research which found that committing self-punishment can make someone appear more moral. In essence, this explanation holds that suffering makes people more moral, and moral behavior leads to greater rewards in the future.

What the authors set out to determine was which one of these explanations has more merit. They started by presenting the participants with a vignette about a protagonist who had a cleft lip. Participants were either told the protagonist wasn’t suffering (the ‘low suffering conditions) or that he was experiencing a ‘high suffering condition’ due to his cleft. Next, the participants were told this protagonist had been entered into a draw where they could win free medical treatment for the condition and asked to rate the likelihood that he would win.

Based on the results, the team says that the virtuous suffering explanation doesn’t really have much support. However, they report that when the protagonist was shown to experience more suffering, participants perceived them as more ‘deserving’ of future rewards — which would support the just-world maintenance explanation.

After this, the team wanted to see how participants would react if the protagonist’s suffering was presented as being self-inflicted. Such suffering, the team believed, would be perceived as being deserved, and thus likely wouldn’t threaten participants’ belief in a just-world. To test this, they gave participants a vignette about a student who is majoring in French and recently had a limb amputation. The student applied to study abroad in France in a program that was nearly full, where the few vacant spots were to be awarded by random draw.

Depending on which group each participant was assigned to, they either read that the procedure was caused by the actions of another individual (‘other condition’), by his own decision (‘self-condition’), or as the result of random chance (‘stochastic condition’). They were then asked to rate the likelihood that the student would win the draw.

People rated the student as more likely to win if he was suffering (compared to the control condition where he wasn’t). However, they rated his likelihood of winning a spot much lower if his own actions led him to the amputation. In fact, people rated his chances in this scenario as low as they did in the control condition.

All in all, the authors write that their results support the “just-world maintenance” explanation, meaning that most people intuitively believe that the world is just and ‘acts’ fairly. They base this on the observation that unjust suffering would threaten this belief much more than the virtuous suffering one, which means people would expect needless suffering to be followed by a reward as a means to make the world just — their results, they note, align with this.

The paper “Why and when suffering increases the perceived likelihood of fortuitous rewards” has been published in the British Journal of Social Psychology.

No Fun Allowed.

Researchers identify neurons that shut down rewards and motivation in the brains of mice

New research is pushing mice to their breaking point to see what our brain does as we give up.

No Fun Allowed.

Image credits Lagrevehumaine / Wikimedia.

A group of cells known as nociceptin neurons get busy when we’re giving up, new research shows. True to their name, these neurons release nociceptin, a complex molecule that suppresses dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that underpins the brain’s pleasure and reward networks. The findings offer us a fresh take on the processes that govern motivation.


“We are taking an entirely new angle on an area of the brain known as VTA [ventral tegmental area],” said co-lead author Christian Pedersen, a fourth-year Ph.D. student in bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine and the UW College of Engineering. “The big discovery is that large complex neurotransmitters known as neuropeptides have a very robust effect on animal behavior by acting on the VTA,” said Pedersen.

Nociceptin neurons are located near the VTA, a brain area that houses the hormones that release dopamine during pleasurable activities. This study took four years to complete and, according to the team, is the first one to describe the effects of the nociceptin modulatory system on dopamine neurons. The team hopes their findings will lead to new ways of helping people find motivation when they are depressed or decrease motivation for drug use in substance-abuse disorders.

The team worked with mice that they trained to seek out sucrose (sugar). To do this, the animals had to poke their snout into a port. The team set-up their experiment in such a way that this task was very simple and straight-forward at first: one poke, one reward. Over time, however, it would take exponentially more pokes (two, five, so on) to get the reward — and eventually, the animals just gave up. All the while, the team monitored the mice’s neural activity.

These recordings showed that the nociceptin neurons act as ‘demotivators’ or ‘frustration’ neurons and became most active when mice stopped seeking sucrose — suggesting they put the brakes on motivation.

“We might think of different scenarios where people aren’t motivated like depression and block these neurons and receptors to help them feel better,” says senior author Michael Bruchas, professor of anesthesiology and pain medicine and of pharmacology at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

“That’s what’s powerful about discovering these cells. Neuropsychiatric diseases that impact motivation could be improved.”

The team explains that these neurons exist as a kind of insurance policy for mammals living in the wild. The reward pathways in our brains work to make us mammals maintain homeostasis (i.e. our internal ‘optimal running conditions’). However, in the wild, animals need a safety switch to keep them from pursuing rewards too much, as the environment tends to have limited resources and this pursuit of reward could impact the animal’s survival by expending too much energy, for example. Persistence in seeking uncertain rewards can also be disadvantageous due to risky exposure to predators, the researchers noted.

The paper “A Paranigral VTA Nociceptin Circuit that Constrains Motivation for Reward” has been published in the journal Cell.

Bar neon sign.

Ignoring distractions or temptation is harder when you’re tired, stressed, or trying to remember something

Stress, tiredness, and general cognitive strain make it much harder for us to ignore signals in the environment for something rewarding — such as bright neon signs for fast food joints.

Bar neon sign.

Neon lights and ads are such tempting cues.
Image via Pixabay.

We all have impulses we’d like to have a better handle on. Some of you might be trying to diet, quit smoking, or kick some other habit; good luck. New research says that tiredness, stress, or any other drain on your mental resources can make it harder for you to resist tempting cues and thus make good on your decision. The team says that trying to hold information in our memory also produces this effect, the first time this link has been demonstrated.


“We knew already that participants find it hard to ignore cues that signal a large reward,” says study lead Dr. Poppy Watson at UNSW.

“We have a set of control resources that are guiding us and helping us suppress these unwanted signals of reward. But when those resources are taxed, these become more and more difficult to ignore.”

Researchers refer to the cognitive processes that allow us to pay attention, organize our life, focus, or regulate our emotions as ‘executive control’. It wasn’t yet clear whether our ability or inability to ignore reward cues (i.e. temptation) was related to executive control or a separate ability, but the present research suggests that the former is true: executive control processes are employed to keep us from distractions or temptations. However, the findings also show that these resources are limited.

“Now that we have evidence that executive control processes are playing an important role in suppressing attention towards unwanted signals of reward, we can begin to look at the possibility of strengthening executive control as a possible treatment avenue for situations like addiction,” says Dr. Watson.

For the study, the team had participants look at a screen on which various shapes — including a colorful circle — were being displayed. Their task was to locate and look at a diamond shape on the screen, and if successful, they’d be given money. However, if they looked at the colored circle — which played the part of the distraction/temptation — they wouldn’t receive money. To make things even harder, participants were told that the presence of a blue circle on-screen meant that they’d be paid more if they successfully completed the diamond task than if an orange circle was shown.

The team tracked where each participant was looking using eye-tracking technology. The team ran a low-memory load and a high-memory load version of the experiment. In the high-memory load version, the participants were also asked to memorize a sequence of numbers while performing the larger task. This set-up was used to further draw from the participants’ cognitive resources and to see how this impacted their ability to perform the diamond task.

Hot Dogs.

Image via Pixabay.

“Study participants found it really difficult to stop themselves from looking at cues that represented the level of reward — the coloured circles — even though they were paid to try and ignore them,” Dr. Watson says.

“Crucially, the circles became harder to ignore when people were asked to also memorize numbers: under high memory load, participants looked at the coloured circle associated with the high reward around 50% of the time, even though this was entirely counterproductive.”

The findings suggest that people need access to either full or at least a sizeable chunk of their cognitive control processes to successfully block distractions or temptations from the environment. This mechanism, ironically, seems to make it harder to ignore cues regarding habits or behaviors you want to change — because you’re paying attention to changing them specifically. This might also explain why people find it harder to focus on dieting or beating an addiction if they are under a lot of stress.

“There’s this strong known link between where your attention is and what you eventually do, so if you find it hard to focus your attention away from reward cues, it’s even harder to act accordingly,” says Dr. Watson. “Constant worrying or stress is the equivalent to the high-memory load scenario of our experiment, impacting on people’s ability to use their executive control resources in a way that’s helping them manage unwanted cues in the environment.”

The team wants to see if executive control can be strengthened and if that can be used in the context of drug rehabilitation.

The paper “Capture and Control: Working Memory Modulates Attentional Capture by Reward-Related Stimuli” has been published in the journal Psychological Science.

Music statues.

Unexpected notes make music more enjoyable

Unexpected but consonant notes in music activate the reward centers in our brains, new research reveals.

Music statues.

Image via Pixabay.

Doesn’t that unexpected, but perfect, note peppered into a song send shivers down your spine? You’re not alone. New research at the McGill University shows that a dash of the unexpected in music lights up our brain’s reward centers, and helps us learn about music as we listen.

Unexpected by not unpleasant

The team, led by PhD candidate Ben Gold, worked with 20 volunteers through a musical reward learning task. The task consisted of a game where participants had to pick a color and then a direction. Each choice had a certain probability of returning a consonant (pleasurable) musical excerpt or a dissonant (unpleasurable) one.

Over time, participants started to learn which choices were more likely to produce either of these excerpts, which was what the team wanted. The test was designed to create an expectation in the mind of participants — either for musical dissatisfaction or enjoyment. Each participant had their brain activity measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during the trial.

Pooling all this data together, the team determined reward prediction error for each choice the participants made. This error is the difference between expected reward and the actual outcome of their choice. Comparing these errors to MRI data revealed that reward prediction errors correlated with activity in the nucleus accumbens (NA), a brain region previously studies linked to feelings of musical pleasure. This is the first evidence that musically-elicited reward prediction errors cause musical pleasure, the team writes, as well as the first time an aesthetic reward such as music has been shown to create this kind of response. Previous studies have found similar results, but they worked with more tangible rewards such as food or money.

Finally, the team explains that subjects whose reward prediction errors most closely mirrored activity in the NA learned which choices lead to consonant tones faster than their peers. This, the team writes, establishes music as a neurobiological reward capable of motivating learning. The pleasurable feeling elicited by this effect motivates us to listen again and again, they explain, which helps us learn.

“This study adds to our understanding of how abstract stimuli like music activate the pleasure centres of our brains,” says Gold. “Our results demonstrate that musical events can elicit formally-modeled reward prediction errors like those observed for concrete rewards such as food or money, and that these signals support learning. This implies that predictive processing might play a much wider role in reward and pleasure than previously realized.”

The paper ” Musical reward prediction errors engage the nucleus accumbens and motivate learning” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Find a 2.2-pound-chunk of the Michigan meteorite and you can win $20,000

If you’re out hunting pieces of the meteorite that shook Michigan on Tuesday 16, Darryl Pitt, curator of the Macovich Collection of Meteorites, has an offer you can’t refuse: be the first to bring him a 2.2 pound (1 kilogram) chunk of the space rock, and he’ll pay you $20,000.


Dashboard picture of the meteorite over Michigan.
Image via WeekFacts.

Pitt is taking inspiration from video games and sending Michiganians out on a quest for fame, glory — and fortune. Pitt, who’s also a meteorite consultant for auction house Christie’s and one of the largest private collectors of meteorites in the world, is putting up a reward of $20,000 for the first man, woman, or child who can bring him a 2.2-pound or more of the meteorite that crashed in Michigan three days ago.

He described the yet-to-be-retrieved space rock as a “winning extraterrestrial lottery ticket,” adding that the time is now for would-be treasure hunters to turn their efforts into a handsome profit.

Starter quest

“It’s better to go out there and find them sooner, because the longer they’re on the ground, the more they tend to blend in with Earth rocks,” said Pitt. “I really want this to be found and the only way that’s going to happen is if there are more boots on the ground.”

Preliminary NASA estimates place the meteorite that struck Michigan at around 6 feet in diameter (1.8 meters), and the force of its impact roughly around 10 tons of TNT. However, until we get our hands on a sample of the rock, we won’t be able to refine these estimates or determine exactly where it came from.

That’s the main reason Pitt issued his reward for the meteor. Furthermore, he’s a Michigan native who grew up in Southfield and studied at the University of Michigan and has a strong interest in space rocks. He remarked how unique it is for bystanders to witness an impact firsthand, saying that the event heightened public awareness and helped make central lower Michigan a hotbed for meteorite hunters.

He adds that it isn’t very common for him to offer a reward for meteorites, simply because there aren’t many known meteor events where the public is aware of its specific trajectory and location.

“Earth is bombarded regularly by materials, but two-thirds of those materials end up in the ocean, and a very large percentage lands in uninhabited areas and places where you can’t find it,” Pitt said.

The fate of this meteorite is still far from settled, however. William Cooke, the head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office in Huntsville, Alabama, says that the meteorite was spotted after 8 p.m. on Tuesday. He estimates that the meteor fragmented about 20 miles (32 kilometers) above the surface “give or take 5 miles.” You can see it happening here:

Those are about the only clear answers we have so far. NASA couldn’t reliably track the rock after that, as the material released as it broke apart screened the rock from radar.

On Wednesday, the agency released a narrowed-down impact area to the west of Hamburg Township in Livingston County (which seems to be pretty accurate). A better-defined search area would give residents a relatively solid chance of finding meteorite material, Pitt says, although the likelihood, as usual, remains fairly small.

Aspiring questees should take heart, however, and not falter in the face of unfriendly odds. We don’t know what the Michigan meteorite is made of, Pitt explains, but it could teach us a lot about the universe.

“We know that there are many meteorites that contain amino acids or building blocks of proteins of life that have never been seen before on Earth. They’re very important, fascinating objects.”

In the end, both Pitt and Cooke would like to remind everybody they must always ask permission from the owners if their search leads them to private properties. You can contact Pitt via his email or at 917-213-8265.

Mermaid sightings in Israel lead to 1.000.000$ reward

Locals, fishermen and tourists in the Israelian town of Kiryat Yam have been reporting repeated sightings of what they believe to be a mermaid, the mythological creature most often describe as half female, half fish.


Shlomo Cohen is one of the first who reported such a sighting. Here’s what he had to say:

“I was with friends when suddenly we saw a woman laying on the sand in a weird way. At first I thought she was just another sunbather, but when we approached she jumped into the water and disappeared. We were all in shock because we saw she had a tail.”

This has been going on for months, and in an attempt to draw even more tourists and attention, the tourism board offered a one million dollars reward, which they believe will motivate people to try their luck.

This once again raises the question of repeated sightings of legendary creatures (Loch Ness, ring a bell?). What is it that makes people see pretty much the same thing. Is it the power of suggestion combined with some imagination? It could be an optical illusion, or an animal that’s already known, and people who want to see something else actually see something else. Well, one thing’s for sure – you really shouldn’t be spending what’s left of your vacation trying to spot a mermaid.