Behavioral and neural representation of expected reward and risk

Sai Sun*, Chuhua Cai, Rongjun Yu*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


When faced with uncertainty, individuals’ value-based decisions are influenced by the expected rewards and risks. Understanding how reward and risk are processed and integrated at the behavioral and neural levels is essential for building up utility theories. Using a modified monetary incentive delay task in which the mean of two possible outcomes (expected reward) and the standard deviation (SD) of the possible outcomes (risk) were parametrically manipulated and orthogonalized, we measured eye movements, response times (RTs), and brain activity when participants seek to secure a reward. We found that RTs varied as a function of the mean but not the SD of the potential reward, suggesting that expected rewards are the main driver of RTs. Moreover, the difference between gazes focused on high vs. low value rewards became smaller when the magnitude of the potential reward (mean of possible outcomes) was larger and when risk (SD of possible outcomes) became smaller, highlighting that reward and risk have different effects on attention deployment. Processing the mean reward activated the striatum. The positive striatal connectivity to the amygdala and negative striatal connectivity to the superior frontal gyrus were correlated with individuals’ sensitivity to the expected reward. In contrast, processing risk activated the anterior insula. Its positive connectivity to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and negative connectivity to the anterior midcingulate cortex were correlated with individual differences in risk sensitivity, further suggesting the functional dissociation of reward and risk at the neural level. Our findings, based on several different measures, delineate the distinct representations of reward and risk in non-decision contexts and provide insight into how these utility parameters modulate attention, motivation, and brain networks.

Original languageEnglish
Article number119731
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2022

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience

User-Defined Keywords

  • Attention
  • fMRI
  • Mean reward
  • Motivation
  • Risk


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