What role do cognitive control regions like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) play in normative behavior (e.g., generosity, healthy eating)? Some models suggest that dlPFC activation during normative choice reflects the use of control to overcome default hedonistic preferences. Here, we develop an alternative account, showing that an attribute-based neural drift diffusion model (anDDM) predicts trial-by-trial variation in dlPFC response across three fMRI studies and two self-control contexts (altruistic sacrifice and healthy eating). Using the anDDM to simulate a variety of self-control dilemmas generated a novel prediction: although dlPFC activity might typically increase for norm-consistent choices, deliberate self-regulation focused on normative goals should decrease or even reverse this pattern (i.e., greater dlPFC response for hedonic, self-interested choices). We confirmed these predictions in both altruistic and dietary choice contexts. Our results suggest that dlPFC’s response during normative choice may depend more on value-based evidence accumulation than inhibition of our baser instincts.
bioRxiv Subject Collection: Neuroscience