, Volume 191, Issue 3, pp 391–431 | Cite as

The debate over dopamine’s role in reward: the case for incentive salience

  • Kent C. BerridgeEmail author



Debate continues over the precise causal contribution made by mesolimbic dopamine systems to reward. There are three competing explanatory categories: ‘liking’, learning, and ‘wanting’. Does dopamine mostly mediate the hedonic impact of reward (‘liking’)? Does it instead mediate learned predictions of future reward, prediction error teaching signals and stamp in associative links (learning)? Or does dopamine motivate the pursuit of rewards by attributing incentive salience to reward-related stimuli (‘wanting’)? Each hypothesis is evaluated here, and it is suggested that the incentive salience or ‘wanting’ hypothesis of dopamine function may be consistent with more evidence than either learning or ‘liking’. In brief, recent evidence indicates that dopamine is neither necessary nor sufficient to mediate changes in hedonic ‘liking’ for sensory pleasures. Other recent evidence indicates that dopamine is not needed for new learning, and not sufficient to directly mediate learning by causing teaching or prediction signals. By contrast, growing evidence indicates that dopamine does contribute causally to incentive salience. Dopamine appears necessary for normal ‘wanting’, and dopamine activation can be sufficient to enhance cue-triggered incentive salience. Drugs of abuse that promote dopamine signals short circuit and sensitize dynamic mesolimbic mechanisms that evolved to attribute incentive salience to rewards. Such drugs interact with incentive salience integrations of Pavlovian associative information with physiological state signals. That interaction sets the stage to cause compulsive ‘wanting’ in addiction, but also provides opportunities for experiments to disentangle ‘wanting’, ‘liking’, and learning hypotheses. Results from studies that exploited those opportunities are described here.


In short, dopamine’s contribution appears to be chiefly to cause ‘wanting’ for hedonic rewards, more than ‘liking’ or learning for those rewards.


Accumbens Reward Opioid Dopamine Basal forebrain Aversion Associative learning Appetite Addiction 



I am grateful to many colleagues who have participated in developing these ideas especially my long-term Michigan collaborators Terry Robinson, who co-developed the incentive salience hypothesis at every step and developed the incentive-sensitization theory, and J. Wayne Aldridge, who has led investigations into its neural coding. I am grateful also to Jill Becker, who arranged the Gordon Conference 2005 debate, and to the editors of this special issue, who arranged for it to be put to paper. Talented colleagues conducted the experiments in our labs that produced the data mentioned here, especially Susana Peciña, Cindy Wyvell, Amy Tindell, Jun Zhang, Casey Cromwell, Sheila Reynolds, Kyle Smith, Stephen Mahler, and Alexis Faure. Xiaoxi Zhuang and Barbara Cagniard also collaborated at a distance on the hyperdopaminergic mice project. Our experiments were supported by NIH (DA015188, DA017752, and MH63649).

This essay was written while on leave at the University of Cambridge, supported as a J.S. Guggenheim Fellow. I am deeply indebted to the kind generosity of Barry Everitt, Anthony Dickinson, Trevor Robbins, Wolfram Schultz, Jeff Dalley, Nicky Clayton, Paul Fletcher, Barbara Sahakian, Angela Roberts, Andrew Calder, Andrew Lawrence, Graham Murray, Todd Braver, Deanna Barch, Anthony Marcel, Susan Jones, Phil Corlett, and many other Cambridge colleagues and students in the Department of Experimental Psychology, Downing College, the Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, and the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit for stimulating discussions and hospitality during the academic year in Cambridge.

Finally, I especially thank Barry Everitt, Terry Robinson, Wolfram Schultz, Trevor Robbins, J. Wayne Aldridge, Jill Becker, Martin Sarter, Anthony Dickinson, Joshua Berke, Jeff Dalley, Jaak Panksepp, John Salamone, Susana Pecina, Kyle Smith, Steve Mahler and anonymous reviewers for enormously helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

Supplementary material

213_2006_578_MOESM1_ESM.mpg (12.1 mb)
Movie 1 Hedonic taste reactions. Examples of positive facial ‘liking’ reactions elicited by sweet taste of sucrose solution from newborn human infants (via oral dropper) and adult rats (via oral cannula). Negative ‘disliking’ reactions elicited by bitter taste of quinine solution. Human infant reactions from Steiner et al. (2001); Rat reactions from Berridge (2000) (MPG 12 mb)


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© Springer-Verlag 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA

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