Collaborative and competitive interactions have been investigated extensively so as to understand how the brain makes choices in the context of strategic games, yet such interactions are known to influence a more basic dimension of behavior: the energy invested in the task. The cognitive mechanisms that motivate effort production in social situations remain poorly understood, and their neural counterparts have not been explored so far. A dominant idea is that the motivation provided by the social context is reducible to the personal utility of effort production, which decreases in collaboration and increases in competition. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we scanned human participants while they produced a physical effort in a collaborative or competitive context. We found that motivation was indeed primarily driven by personal utility, which was reflected in brain regions devoted to rewarding processing (the ventral basal ganglia). However, subjects who departed from utility maximization, working more in collaborative situations, showed greater functional activation and anatomical volume in a brain region implicated previously in social cognition (the temporoparietal junction). Therefore, this region might mediate a purely pro-social motivation to produce greater effort in the context of collaboration. More generally, our findings suggest that the individual propensity to invest energy in collaborative work might have an identifiable counterpart in the brain functional architecture.
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