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Author Notes:

Joshua W. Buckholtz: joshua_buckholtz@harvard.edu

René Marois: rene.marois@vanderbilt.edu.

We wish to thank Brian Essex for assistance with the rTMS localization protocol; Randolph Blake for kindly making available TMS equipment; and Ashley Schwartzman for assistance with rTMS sessions.

We are grateful to Fiery Cushman, Liane Young, and Joshua Green for comments on this manuscript.


Research Funding:

This study was supported by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to Vanderbilt University and the University of California at Santa Barbara.

JWB was supported by the NIMH (T32MH018921 and T32MH064913); the NIDA; the Sloan Foundation; the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation; and the MGH Center for Law, Brain, and Behavior.


  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Prefrontal Cortex
  • Punishment
  • Reaction Time
  • Social Norms
  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
  • Young Adult

From Blame to Punishment: Disrupting Prefrontal Cortex Activity Reveals Norm Enforcement Mechanisms


Journal Title:



Volume 87, Number 6


, Pages 1369-1380

Type of Work:

Article | Post-print: After Peer Review


The social welfare provided by cooperation depends on the enforcement of social norms. Determining blameworthiness and assigning a deserved punishment are two cognitive cornerstones of norm enforcement. Although prior work has implicated the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) in norm-based judgments, the relative contribution of this region to blameworthiness and punishment decisions remains poorly understood. Here, we used repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) and fMRI to determine the specific role of DLPFC function in norm-enforcement behavior. DLPFC rTMS reduced punishment for wrongful acts without affecting blameworthiness ratings, and fMRI revealed punishment-selective DLPFC recruitment, suggesting that these two facets of norm-based decision making are neurobiologically dissociable. Finally, we show that DLPFC rTMS affects punishment decision making by altering the integration of information about culpability and harm. Together, these findings reveal a selective, causal role for DLPFC in norm enforcement: representational integration of the distinct information streams used to make punishment decisions. Buckholtz et al. use inhibitory brain stimulation and fMRI to show that DLPFC involvement in norm enforcement is selective for punishment behavior over blameworthiness judgments. Behavioral modeling suggests that DLPFC integrates representations of harm and culpability to determine appropriate sanctions.

Copyright information:

© 2015 Elsevier Inc.

This is an Open Access work distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/).

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