, Volume 231, Issue 1, pp 135–141 | Cite as

Dopaminergic stimulation increases selfish behavior in the absence of punishment threat

  • Andreas PedroniEmail author
  • Christoph EiseneggerEmail author
  • Matthias N. Hartmann
  • Urs Fischbacher
  • Daria KnochEmail author
Original Investigation



People often face decisions that pit self-interested behavior aimed at maximizing personal reward against normative behavior such as acting cooperatively, which benefits others. The threat of social sanctions for defying the fairness norm prevents people from behaving overly selfish. Thus, normative behavior is influenced by both seeking rewards and avoiding punishment. However, the neurochemical processes mediating the impact of these influences remain unknown. Several lines of evidence link the dopaminergic system to reward and punishment processing, respectively, but this evidence stems from studies in non-social contexts.


The present study investigates dopaminergic drug effects on individuals' reward seeking and punishment avoidance in social interaction.


Two-hundred one healthy male participants were randomly assigned to receive 300 mg of l-3,4-dihydroxyphenylalanine (L-DOPA) or a placebo before playing an economic bargaining game. This game involved two conditions, one in which unfair behavior could be punished and one in which unfair behavior could not be punished.


In the absence of punishment threats, L-DOPA administration led to more selfish behavior, likely mediated through an increase in reward seeking. In contrast, L-DOPA administration had no significant effect on behavior when faced with punishment threats.


The results of this study broaden the role of the dopaminergic system in reward seeking to human social interactions. We could show that even a single dose of a dopaminergic drug may bring selfish behavior to the fore, which in turn may shed new light on potential causal relationships between the dopaminergic system and norm abiding behaviors in certain clinical subpopulations.


Dopamine Reward Punishment Normative behavior Decision making 



This project was supported by a grant to DK by the Swiss National Science Foundation (PP00P1_123381). CE acknowledges support of the Swiss National Science Foundation (PA00P1_134135).

Conflict of interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Psychology, Social and Affective NeuroscienceUniversity of BaselBaselSwitzerland
  2. 2.Department of Experimental Psychology, Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience InstituteUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK
  3. 3.Department of EconomicsUniversity of KonstanzKonstanzGermany
  4. 4.Thurgau Institute of EconomicsKreuzlingenSwitzerland
  5. 5.Social and Affective Neuroscience, Department of PsychologyUniversity of BaselBaselSwitzerland

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