Different representations of relative and absolute subjective value in the human brain.
Grabenhorst F., Rolls ET.
Relative reward value is important for the choice between a set of available rewards, and absolute reward value for stable and consistent economic choice. It is unclear whether in the human brain subjective absolute value representations can be dissociated from relative reward value representations. Using fMRI, we investigated how the subjective pleasantness of an odor is influenced by whether the odor is presented in the context of a relatively more pleasant or less pleasant odor. We delivered two of a set of four odors separated by a delay of 6 s, with the instruction to rate the pleasantness of the second odor, and searched for brain regions where the activations were correlated with the absolute pleasantness rating of the second odor, and for brain regions where the activations were correlated with the difference in pleasantness of the second from the first odor, that is, with relative pleasantness. Activations in the anterolateral orbitofrontal cortex tracked the relative subjective pleasantness, whereas activations in the anterior insula tracked the relative subjective unpleasantness. In contrast, in the medial and midorbitofrontal cortex activations tracked the absolute pleasantness of the stimuli. Thus, both relative and absolute subjective value signals which provide important inputs to decision-making processes about which stimulus to choose are separately and simultaneously represented in the human brain.