The neural signature of escalating frustration in humans

Rongjun Yu*, Dean Mobbs, Ben Seymour, James B. Rowe, Andrew J. Calder

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review

74 Citations (Scopus)


Mammalian studies show that frustration is experienced when goal-directed activity is blocked. Despite frustration's strongly negative role in health, aggression and social relationships, the neural mechanisms are not well understood. To address this we developed a task in which participants were blocked from obtaining a reward, an established method of producing frustration. Levels of experienced frustration were parametrically varied by manipulating the participants' motivation to obtain the reward prior to blocking. This was achieved by varying the participants' proximity to a reward and the amount of effort expended in attempting to acquire it. In experiment 1, we confirmed that proximity and expended effort independently enhanced participants' self-reported desire to obtain the reward, and their self-reported frustration and response vigor (key-press force) following blocking. In experiment 2, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show that both proximity and expended effort modulated brain responses to blocked reward in regions implicated in animal models of reactive aggression, including the amygdala, midbrain periaqueductal grey (PAG), insula and prefrontal cortex. Our findings suggest that frustration may serve an energizing function, translating unfulfilled motivation into aggressive-like surges via a cortical, amygdala and PAG network.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)165-178
Number of pages14
Publication statusPublished - May 2014

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience

User-Defined Keywords

  • Amygdala
  • Frustration
  • Periaqueductal grey
  • Reactive aggression


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