Human behaviors are motivated not only by materialistic rewards but also by abstract social rewards, such as the approval of others. When choosing an action in social situations, to evaluate each action, the brain must convert different types of reward (such as money or social approval) into a common scale. Here using fMRI, we investigated the neural correlates of such valuation computations while individuals freely decided whether to donate to real charities or to take the money for themselves in the presence or absence of observers. Behavioral evidence showed that the mere presence of observers increased donation rates, and neuroimaging results revealed that activation in the ventral striatum before the same choice (“donate” or “not donate”) was significantly modulated by the presence of observers. Particularly high striatal activations were observed when a high social reward was expected (donation in public) and when there was the potential for monetary gain without social cost (no donation in the absence of observers). These findings highlight the importance of this area in representing both social and monetary rewards as a “decision utility” and add to the understanding of how the brain makes a choice using a “common neural currency” in social situations.

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