For most people, the prospect of monetary gain frequently motivates behavior.
For instance, pursuing higher education can enrich our mental lives, but many people are influenced as much or more by the fact that a degree can lead to a better paying job.
Sadly, some take the pursuit of money to extreme lengths, turning it into a compulsive behavior they can’t resist.
In the process, they neglect other aspects of their lives, particularly relationships with family and friends.
On the other hand, some people pay too little attention to money matters and end up losing fortunes or living marginalized lives.
Studies have shown that positive social feedback and a good reputation stimulate the same brain regions as monetary and material rewards.
What this indicates is that our brains perceive both material goods, like money, and non-materialistic goods — such as an academic achievement award — in similar ways.
Researchers at the California Institute of Technology delved deeper into the ways that people make choices by studying the reactions of neural circuits in the brain when experiencing social and monetary gains.
Subjects were given two identical learning tasks that involved a reward.
For one task, the volunteers anticipated a social reward; they got to view images of either smiling or angry people depending on how successfully they completed the task.
For the other task, the potential reward was monetary; they would either gain or lose financially.
Using functional MRI scanning, the Caltech scientists found extensive overlapping in the brain networks activated by both types of rewards.
Two regions were particularly activated: the ventral striatum, an area at the base of the brain that connects to our memory and emotional centers; and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, a region in the frontal lobe that involves decision-making and assessment of risk and fear.
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