Research interests

Neuroeconomics, experimental economics, game theory

We study human behaviors emerging from the interplay of cognitive and emotional systems. Our research agenda includes two main projects. The first one concerns the role of emotions in decision making, and the second is aimed at investigating the relational complexity in social interaction. Our objective is to apply robust methods and findings from behavioral decision theory to study the brain structures that contribute to forming judgments and decisions, both in an individual and a social context.

We study (1) the role of counterfactual emotions, such as regret and envy, in decision making (fMRI and Orbitofrontal patients studies); (2) the neural basis of bounded rational behavior: limit in depth of strategic reasoning; (3) the neural correlates of individual and social uncertainty: disposition effect, aspiration level, strategic uncertainty; (4) how the brain encodes learning signals: regret/fictive learning, reputation building; (5) impaired decision making in schizophrenia and autism.

We conduct our research using a fundamentally multidisciplinary approach (Neuroeconomics), drawing from behavioral and experimental economics, game theory, neuroimaging (fMRI), neuropsychology (patients studies), and cognitive neurosciences.


Selected publications

The involvement of the orbitofrontal cortex in the experience of regret” [PDF]
Camille, Coricelli et al. (2004) Science

Abstract Facing the consequence of a decision we made can trigger emotions like satisfaction, relief, or regret, which reflect our assessment of what was gained as compared to what would have been gained by making a different decision. These emotions are mediated by a cognitive process known as counterfactual thinking. By manipulating a simple gambling task, we characterized a subject’s choices in terms of their anticipated and actual emotional impact. Normal subjects reported emotional responses consistent with counterfactual thinking; they chose to minimize future regret and learned from their emotional experience. Patients with orbitofrontal cortical lesions, however, did not report regret or anticipate negative consequences of their choices. The orbitofrontal cortex has a fundamental role in mediating the experience of regret.

Regret and its Avoidance: A Neuroimaging Study of Choice Behavior” [PDF]

Coricelli et al. (2005) Nature Neuroscience

Abstract  Human decisions can be shaped by predictions of emotions that ensue after choosing advantageously or disadvantageously. Indeed, anticipating regret is a powerful predictor of future choices. We measured brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while subjects selected between two gambles wherein regret was induced by providing information about the outcome of the unchosen gamble. Increasing regret enhanced activity in the medial orbitofrontal region, the anterior cingulate cortex and the hippocampus. Notably, across the experiment, subjects became increasingly regret-aversive, a cumulative effect reflected in enhanced activity within medial orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala. This pattern of activity reoccurred just before making a choice, suggesting that the same neural circuitry mediates direct experience of regret and its anticipation. These results demonstrate that medial orbitofrontal cortex modulates the gain of adaptive emotions in a manner that may provide a substrate for the influence of high-level emotions on decision making.

Partner selection in public goods experiments” [PDF]

Coricelli, Fehr, Fellner (2004) Journal of Conflict Resolution

Abstract  The effect of introducing costly partner selection for the voluntary contribution to a public good is examined. Participants are in six sequences of five rounds of a two-person public good game in partner design. At the end of each sequence, they can select a new partner out of six group members. Unidirectional and bidirectional partner selection mechanisms are introduced and compared to controls with random partner rematching. Results demonstrate significantly higher cooperation in correspondence to unidirectional partner selection than to bidirectional selection and random rematching. Average monetary effort for being able to choose a partner is substantially high and remains stable.

Two-levels of mental states attribution: from automaticity to voluntariness” [PDF]

Coricelli (2005) Neuropsychologia 

Abstract  In this paper, I introduce the hypothesis that there are two levels of mindreading. The first level refers to automatic preconceptual phenomena that specify a primitive understanding of another person’s mind. It is based on early imitation, action and emotion recognition. The second level of mindreading is conceptual and voluntary. It is based on intentionality, empathy, and higher depths of reasoning. The activities in both levels are generated by internal simulative mechanisms. This hypothesis is based on human and nonhuman neuroscientific evidence.

 Brain, emotion and decision making: the paradigmatic example of regret” [PDF]

Coricelli, Dolan & Sirigu (2007) TICS

Abstract  Human decisions cannot be explained solely by rational imperatives but are strongly influenced by emotion. Theoretical and behavioral studies provide a sound empirical basis to the impact of the emotion of regret in guiding choice behavior. Recent neuropsychological and neuroimaging data have stressed the fundamental role of the orbitofrontal cortex in mediating the experience of regret. Functional magnetic resonance imaging data indicate that reactivation of activity within the orbitofrontal cortex and amygdala occurring during the phase of choice, when the brain is anticipating possible future consequences of decisions, characterizes the anticipation of regret. In turn, these patterns reflect learning based on cumulative emotional experience. Moreover, affective consequences can induce specific mechanisms of cognitive control of the choice processes,  involving reinforcement or avoidance of the experienced behavior.

 Self-centered and other-regarding behavior in the solidarity game” [PDF]

Buchner, Coricelli, Greiner (2007) JEBO

Abstract This paper revisits the experiment on the solidarity game by Selten and Ockenfels [Selten, R., Ockenfels, A., 1998. An experimental solidarity game. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization 34, 517–539]. We replicate the basic design and extend it to test the robustness of the ‘fixed total sacrifice’ effect and the applied strategy method. Our results only partially confirm the validity of the fixed total sacrifice effect. In a treatment with constant group endowment rather than constant winner endowment, the predominance of ‘fixed total sacrifice’ behavior is replaced by ‘fixed relative gift’ behavior. We do not find correlations between actual gift behavior and measures of empathy-driven pro-social behavior used in social science.

 Interdependent utilities: How social ranking affects choice behavior” [PDF]

Bault, Coricelli & Rustichini (2008) PLoSOne

Abstract  Organization in hierarchical dominance structures is prevalent in animal societies, so a strong preference for higher positions in social ranking is likely to be an important motivation of human social and economic behavior. This preference is also likely to influence the way in which we evaluate our outcome and the outcome of others, and finally the way we choose. In our experiment participants choose among lotteries with different levels of risk, and can observe the choice that others have made. Results show that the relative weight of gains and losses is the opposite in the private and social domain. For private outcomes, experience and anticipation of losses loom larger than gains, whereas in the social domain, gains loom larger than losses, as indexed by subjective emotional evaluations and physiological responses. We propose a theoretical model (interdependent utilities), predicting the implication of this effect for choice behavior. The relatively larger weight assigned to social gains strongly affects choices, inducing complementary behavior: faced with a weaker competitor, participants adopt a more risky and dominant behavior. 

Neural correlates of depth of strategic reasoning in medial prefrontal cortex” [PDF]
Coricelli & Nagel (2009) PNAS

Abstract  We used functional MRI (fMRI) to investigate human mental processes in a competitive interactive setting—the ‘‘beauty contest’’ game. This game is well-suited for investigating whether and how a player’s mental processing incorporates the thinking process of others in strategic reasoning. We apply a cognitive hierarchy model to classify subject’s choices in the experimental game according to the degree of strategic reasoning so that we can identify the neural substrates of different levels of strategizing. According to this model, high-level reasoners expect the others to behave strategically, whereas low-level reasoners choose based on the expectation that others will choose randomly. The data show that high-level reasoning and a measure of strategic IQ (related to winning in the game) correlate with the neural activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, demonstrating its crucial role in successful mentalizing. This supports a cognitive hierarchy model of human brain and behavior. 

Counterfactual Thinking and Emotions: Regret and Envy Learning” [PDF]
Coricelli & Rustichini (2010) Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B

Abstract  Emotions like regret and envy share a common origin: they are motivated by the counterfactual thinking of what would have happened had we made a different choice. When we contemplate the outcome of a choice we made, we may use the information on the outcome of a choice we did not make. Regret is the purely private comparison between two choices that we could have taken, envy adds to this the information on outcome of choices of others. However, envy has a distinct social component, in that it adds the change in the social ranking that follows a difference in the outcomes. We study the theoretical foundation and the experimental test of this view.

 “Impaired decision-making in schizophrenia and orbitofrontal cortex patients” [PDF]

Larquet, M., Coricelli, G., Opolczynski, G., Thibaut, F. (2010). Schizophrenia Research

Abstract Background: The aim of this study was to examine impaired decision making in patients with schizophrenia and in patients with orbitofrontal cortex lesions.Methods: Schizophrenia patients (N=21), healthy controls (N=20) and an independent group of orbitofrontal patients (N=10) underwent a computerized version of the Regret Gambling Task. Participants chose between two gambles, each having different probabilities and different expected monetary outcomes, and rated their emotional states after seeing the obtained outcome. Regret was induced by providing information about the outcome of the unchosen gamble.Results: Healthy controls reported emotional responses consistent with counterfactual reasoning between obtained and unobtained outcomes; they chose minimizing future regret and were able to learn from their emotional experience. In contrast, orbitofrontal patients and schizophrenia patients with prominent positive symptoms did not report any regret and did not anticipate any negative consequences of their choices. Our results demonstrate the presence of very different behavioural defcits within the spectrum of schizophrenia patients which may have contributed to the discrepancies observed in previous studies. Second, theresults suggest that a subgroup of schizophrenia patients might have an orbitofrontal dysfunction, in fact, schizophrenia patients with positive symptoms have a behavioural dysfunction analogous to that of the orbitofrontal patients.Conclusion: Schizophrenia patients with prominent positive symptoms were unable to integrate cognitive and emotional components of decision making which may contribute to their inability to generate adaptive behaviours in social and individual environments.

Cheating, emotions, and rationality: an experiment on tax evasion” [PDF]

Coricelli et al. (2010) Experimental Economics

Abstract  The economics-of-crime approach usually ignores the emotional cost and benefit of cheating. In this paper, we investigate the relationships between emotions, deception, and rational decision-making by means of an experiment on tax evasion. Emotions are measured by skin conductance responses and self-reports. We show that the intensity of anticipated and anticipatory emotions before reporting income positively correlates with both the decision to cheat and the proportion of evaded income. The experienced emotional arousal after an audit increases with the monetary sanctions and the arousal is even stronger when the evader’s picture is publicly displayed. We also find that the risk of a public exposure of deception deters evasion whereas the amount of fines encourages evasion. These results suggest that an audit policy that strengthens the emotional dimension of cheating favors compliance.

“Adolescents' heightened risk-seeking in a probabilistic gambling task” [PDF]

 Burnett, S., Bault, N., Coricelli, G., Blakemore S.J. (2010).  Cognitive Development

Abstract This study investigated adolescent males’ decision-making underrisk, and the emotional response to decision outcomes, usinga probabilistic gambling task designed to evoke counterfactuallymediated emotions (relief and regret). Participants were 20adolescents (aged 9–11), 26 young adolescents (aged 12–15), 20mid-adolescents (aged 15–18) and 17 adults (aged 25–35). All weremale. The ability to maximize expected value improved with age.However, there was an inverted U-shaped developmental patternfor risk-seeking. The age at which risk-taking was highest was 14.38years. Although emotion ratings overall did not differ across age,there was an increase between childhood and young adolescencein the strength of counterfactually mediated emotions (relief andregret) reported after receiving feedback about the gamble outcome.We suggest that continuing development of the emotionalresponse to outcomes may be a factor contributing to adolescents’risky behaviour.

Medial prefrontal cortex and striatum mediate the influence of social comparison on the decision process"[PDF]

Bault-Joffily-Rustichini-Coricelli (2011) PNAS

Abstract   We compared private and social decision making to investigate the neural underpinnings of the effect of social comparison on risky choices. We measured brain activity using functional MRI while participants chose between two lotteries: in the private condition, they observed the outcome of the unchosen lottery, and in the social condition, the outcome of the lottery chosen by another person. The striatum, a reward-related brain structure, showed higher activity when participants won more than their counterpart (social gains) compared with winning in isolation and lower activity when they won less than their counterpart (social loss) compared with private loss. The medial prefrontal cortex, implicated in social reasoning, was more activated by social gains than all other events. Sensitivity to social gains influenced both brain activity and behavior during subsequent choices. Specifically, striatal activity associated with social gains predicted medial prefrontal cortex activity during social choices, and experienced social gains induced more risky and competitive behavior in later trials. These results show that interplay between reward and social reasoning networks mediates the influence of social comparison on the decision process.

 “Positive Interaction of Social Comparison and Personal Responsibility for Outcomes” [PDF]

Grygolec, J., Coricelli, G. and Rustichini, A. (2012) Frontiers in Pscychology 

Abstract We report the results of an fMRI experiment in which volunteers choose between two lotteries:  low- and high-risk in private and social environments. The evidence suggests that envy and pride are significant motives driving decisions and outcomes evaluation, stronger than private emotions like regret and rejoice, with ventral striatum playing a key role. Focusing on outcomes evaluation stage we demonstrate that BOLD signal in ventral striatum is increasing in the difference between obtained and counterfactual payoffs. For a given difference in payoffs striatal response is more pronounced in social than in private environment. We document positive interaction of social comparison and personal responsibility for outcomes in ventral striatum. At decision stage we observe getting ahead of the Joneses effect in ventral striatum with subjective value of risk larger in social than in private environment.


"Reputational priors magnify striatal responses to violations of trust" [PDF] 

Fouragnan, E., Chierchia, G., Greiner, S., Neveu,R., Avesani, P., and Coricelli, G. (2013). The Journal of Neuroscience. 33(8):3602–3611

Abstract Humans learn to trust each other by evaluating the outcomes of repeated interpersonal interactions. However, available prior information on the reputation of traders may alter the way outcomes affect learning. Our functional magnetic resonance imaging study is the first to allow the direct comparison of interaction-based and prior-based learning. Twenty participants played repeated trust games with anonymous counterparts. We manipulated two experimental conditions: whether or not reputational priors were provided, and whether counterparts were generally trustworthy or untrustworthy. When no prior information is available our results are consistent with previous studies in showing that striatal activation patterns correlate with behaviorally estimated reinforcement learning measures. However, our study additionally shows that this correlation is disrupted when reputational priors on counterparts are provided. Indeed participants continue to rely on priors even when experience sheds doubt on their accuracy. Notably, violations of trust from a cooperative counterpart elicited stronger caudate deactivations when priors were available than when they were not. However, tolerance to such violations appeared to be mediated by prior-enhanced connectivity between the caudate nucleus and ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, which anticorrelated with retaliation rates. Moreover, on top of affecting learning mechanisms, priors also clearly oriented initial decisions to trust, reflected in medial prefrontal cortex activity.

 "Tax Evasion and emotions in repeated interactions: An empirical test of re-integrative shaming theory"[PDF]

Coricelli, G., Rusconi, E., Villeval M-C. (2014). Journal of Economic Psychology.

Abatract Shaming can be either of two types, shaming that becomes stigmatization of the offender and favors his exclusion from the community, or shaming that is followed by forgiveness and reintegration of the deviant. Here we test experimentally these aspects of shaming theory with a repeated tax-payment game, in which the shaming ‘‘ritual’’ consisted of displaying the evader’s picture in addition to charging monetary sanctions. Results show that when cheating is made public and the contravener is not successively reintegrated, the total amount of cheating is significantly increased compared to when cheating is made public but publicity is immediately followed by reintegration. The former condition is associated with more intense negative emotions related to cheating. This suggests that the employment of a social shaming mechanism may be an effective, albeit very sensitive, tool in the hands of policy makers.

“Emotional valence and the free-energy principle” [PDF]

Mateus Joffily and Giorgio Coricelli, PLoS Computational Biology (2013)

Abstract The free-energy principle has recently been proposed as a unified Bayesian account of perception, learning and action. Despite the inextricable link between emotion and cognition, emotion has not yet been formulated under this framework. A core concept that permeates many perspectives on emotion is valence, which broadly refers to the positive and negative character of emotion or some of its aspects. In the present paper, we propose a definition of emotional valence in terms of the negative rate of change of free-energy over time. If the second time-derivative of free-energy is taken into account, the dynamics of basic forms of emotion such as happiness, unhappiness, hope, fear, disappointment and relief can be explained. In this formulation, an important function of emotional valence turns out to regulate the learning rate of the causes of sensory inputs. When sensations increasingly violate the agent's expectations, valence is negative and increases the learning rate. Conversely, when sensations increasingly fulfill the agent's expectations, valence is positive and decreases the learning rate. This dynamic interaction between emotional valence and learning rate highlights the crucial role played by emotions in biological agents' adaptation to unexpected changes in their world.

Feelings of Regret and Disappointment in Adults with High-Functioning Autism

 Tiziana Zalla, Angela Sirigu, Suzanne Robic, Pauline Chaste, Marion Leboyer, and Giorgio Coricelli (Cortex, 2014 in press)

Abstract Impairments in emotional processing in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) can be characterised by failure to generate and recognize self-reflective, cognitive-based emotions, such as pride, embarrassment and shame. Among this type of emotions, regret and disappointment, as well as their positive counterparts, result from a counterfactual comparison, that is the comparison between an actual value (“what is”) and a fictive value (what might have been). However, while disappointment is experienced when the obtained outcome is worse than the expected outcome that might have occurred from the same choice, regret occurs when one experiences an outcome that is worse than the outcome of foregone choices. By manipulating a simple gambling task, we examined subjective reports on the intensity of negative and positive emotions in a group of adults with High Functioning Autism or Asperger syndrome (HFA/AS), and a control group matched for age, gender and educational level. Participants were asked to choose between two lotteries with different levels of risk under two conditions: (i) Partial, in which only the outcome of the chosen lottery was visible, (ii) Complete, in which the outcomes of the two lotteries were simultaneously visible. By comparing partial and complete conditions, we aimed to investigate the differential effect between disappointment and regret, as well as between their positive counterparts. Relative to the control participants, the group with HFA/AS reported reduced regret and no difference between regret and disappointment, along with a preserved ability to use counterfactual thinking and similar choice behavior. Difficulties to distinguish the feeling of regret in participants with HFA/AS can be explained by diminished emotional awareness, likely associated with an abnormal fronto-limbic connectivity. 

Strategic sophistication and attention in games: an eye-tracking study

 Luca Polonio, Sibilla Di Guida, and Giorgio Coricelli (2014)


Complete list of publications (and downloads)


NIH Neuroscience Seminar: Neural Basis of Strategic Choice (podcast)


Media coverage about our research

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. Brain Region Tied to Regret Identified

NEW SCIENTIST. Pinpointing regret in the brain

THE NEW YOURK TIMES. VITAL SIGNS: EMOTIONS; Winning, Losing and Regretting

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. Even better than a personal best


Il CORRIERE DELLA SERA. Nella testa di chi non conosce il rimpianto

Il Sole 24 ORE. Successi e Sconfitte: ecco perche` gioiamo delle "cadute" altrui

FOX NEWS. Where Regret Roosts in the Brain

Il CORRIERE DELLA SERA. Il gioco che promuove il broker

CERVEAU & PSYCHO. Les bones raisons d'avoir des regret

LA REPUBBLICA. Il rimpianto e` l'anima del commercio

NATURE Highlight. A life of regret

NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION (NSF) NEWS. Peer Pressure? It's Hardwired Into Our Brains

Il Sole 24 ORE. Felici di essere invidiosi

Le Scienze. La reputazione e l'(in)capacita` di imparare dall'esperienza