Distinct neural representations for prosocial and self-benefitting effort


Prosocial behaviours – actions that benefit others – are central to individual and societal well-being. Most prosocial acts are effortful. Yet, how the brain encodes effort costs when actions benefit others is unknown. Here, using a combination of multivariate representational similarity analysis and model-based univariate analysis during fMRI, we reveal how the costs of prosocial efforts are processed. Strikingly, we identified a unique neural signature of effort in the anterior cingulate gyrus for prosocial acts both when choosing to help others and when exerting force for their benefit. This pattern was absent for similar self-benefitting behaviour and correlated with individual levels of empathy. In contrast, the ventral tegmental area and the ventral insula signalled subjective value preferentially when choosing whether to exert effort to benefit oneself. These findings demonstrate partially distinct brain areas guide the evaluation and exertion of effort costs when acts are prosocial or self-benefitting.