Experimental Brain Research

, Volume 169, Issue 4, pp 564–568 | Cite as

Affective state and decision-making in the Ultimatum Game

  • Mascha van ’t WoutEmail author
  • René S. Kahn
  • Alan G. Sanfey
  • André Aleman
Research Note


The emerging field of neuroeconomics has provided evidence that emotional as well as cognitive processes may contribute to economic decision-making. Indeed, activation of the anterior insula, a brain area involved in emotional processing, has been shown to predict decision-making in the Ultimatum Game. However, as the insula has also been implicated in other brain functions, converging evidence on the role of emotion in the Ultimatum Game is needed. In the present study, 30 healthy undergraduate students played the Ultimatum Game while their skin conductance responses were measured as an autonomic index of affective state. The results revealed that skin conductance activity was higher for unfair offers and was associated with the rejection of unfair offers in the Ultimatum Game. Interestingly, this pattern was only observed for offers proposed by human conspecifics, but not for offers generated by computers. This provides direct support for economic models that acknowledge the role of emotional brain systems in everyday decision-making.


Decision-making Emotion Arousal Skin conductance Ultimatum Game Social utility 



We would like to thank T. Rietkerk for help with data collection. M. van ’t Wout and A. Aleman were supported by a VernieuwingsImpuls grant (no 016.026.027) from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).


  1. Bechara A, Damasio AR (2005) The somatic marker hypothesis: a neural theory of economic decision. Games Econ Behav 52:336–372CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bechara A, Damasio H, Tranel D, Damasio AR (1997) Deciding advantageously before knowing the advantageous strategy. Science 275:1293–1295PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bechara A, Damasio H, Damasio AR, Lee GP (1999) Different contributions of the human amygdala and ventromedial prefrontal cortex to decision-making. J Neurosci 19:5473–5481PubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Bechara A, Damasio H, Tranel D, Damasio AR (2005) The Iowa Gambling Task and the somatic marker hypothesis: some questions and answers. Trends Cogn Sci 9:159–162PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bolton GE, Zwick R (1995) Anonymity versus punishment in Ultimatum Bargaining. Games Econ Behav 10:95–121CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bouscein W (1992) Electrodermal activity. Plenum, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  7. Camerer CF (2003) Strategizing in the brain. Science 300:1673–1675PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Critchley HD, Wiens S, Rotshtein P, Ohman A, Dolan RJ (2004) Neural systems supporting interoceptive awareness. Nat Neurosci 7:189–195PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Damasio AR (1994) Descartes’ error: emotion, reason, and the human brain. Putnam, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  10. Guth W, Schmittberger R, Schwarze B (1982) An experimental analysis of ultimatum bargaining. J Econ Behav Organ 3:367–388CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Guth W, Huck S, Muller W (2001) The relevance of equal splits in ultimatum games. Games Econ Behav 37:161–169CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Maia TV, McClelland JL (2004) A reexamination of the evidence for the somatic marker hypothesis: what participants really know in the Iowa gambling task. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 101:16075–16080Google Scholar
  13. Nowak MA, Page KM, Sigmund K (2000) Fairness versus reason in the Ultimatum Game. Science 289:1773–1775PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Phillips ML, Young AW, Senior C, Brammer M, Andrew C, Calder AJ, Bullmore ET, Perrett DI, Rowland D, Williams SCR, Gray JA, David AS (1997) A specific neural substrate for perceiving facial expressions of disgust. Nature 389:495–498PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Pillutla MM, Murnighan JK (1996) Unfairness, anger, and spite: emotional rejections of Ultimatum Offers. Organ Behav Hum Decis Process 68:208–224CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Roth AE (1995) Bargaining experiments. In: Kagal J, Roth A (eds) Handbook of experimental economics. Princeton University Press, Princeton, pp 253–342Google Scholar
  17. Sanfey AG, Rilling JK, Aronson JA, Nystrom LE, Cohen JD (2003) The neural basis of economic decision-making in the ultimatum game. Science 300:1755–1758PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Mascha van ’t Wout
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • René S. Kahn
    • 2
  • Alan G. Sanfey
    • 3
  • André Aleman
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of Psychonomics, Helmholtz InstituteUtrecht UniversityUtrechtThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Department of Psychiatry, Rudolf Magnus Institute of NeuroscienceUniversity Medical Center UtrechtUtrechtThe Netherlands
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUniversity of ArizonaTucsonUSA
  4. 4.BCN NeuroImaging CenterUniversity of GroningenGroningenThe Netherlands

Personalised recommendations