In most studies on human reward processing, reward intensity has been manipulated on an objective scale (e.g., varying monetary value). Everyday experience, however, teaches us that objectively equivalent rewards may differ substantially in their subjective incentive values. One factor influencing incentive value in humans is branding. The current study explores the hypothesis that individual brand preferences modulate activity in reward areas similarly to objectively measurable differences in reward intensity.
A wheel-of-fortune game comprising an anticipation phase and a subsequent outcome evaluation phase was implemented. Inside a 3 Tesla MRI scanner, 19 participants played for chocolate bars of three different brands that differed in subjective attractiveness.
Parametrical analysis of the obtained fMRI data demonstrated that the level of activity in anatomically distinct neural networks was linearly associated with the subjective preference hierarchy of the brands played for. During the anticipation phases, preference-dependent neural activity has been registered in premotor areas, insular cortex, orbitofrontal cortex, and in the midbrain. During the outcome phases, neural activity in the caudate nucleus, precuneus, lingual gyrus, cerebellum, and in the pallidum was influenced by individual preference.
Our results suggest a graded effect of differently preferred brands onto the incentive value of objectively equivalent rewards. Regarding the anticipation phase, the results reflect an intensified state of wanting that facilitates action preparation when the participants play for their favorite brand. This mechanism may underlie approach behavior in real-life choice situations.