I am happy for us: Neural processing of vicarious joy when winning for parents versus strangers

Philip Brandner*, Berna Güroğlu, Eveline A. Crone

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


This study investigated the neural processes underlying vicarious joy and their dependence on emotional closeness. Prior studies revealed that the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) is a target brain region for processing rewards for self, but the neural mechanisms of processing rewards for others are not yet well understood. A functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) paradigm was employed in young adults (N = 30), in combination with a self-report questionnaire on the perceived emotional closeness to the target. We examined the neural correlates of vicarious rewards when winning money for oneself or one of three other targets. To examine family relationships, two of the targets were the mother and father of the participants, and the third target was an unknown stranger. We found an increase in activation in the NAcc when playing for family members compared with a stranger. We further observed a difference in neural activation when winning for the father compared with the mother in an extended network involving the medial prefrontal cortex and precuneus, brain regions involved in mentalizing. These findings were not related to reports of emotional closeness. This new paradigm has considerable value for future research into the fundamental neural processes underlying empathy and vicarious joy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1309-1322
Number of pages14
JournalCognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 14 Oct 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by an innovative ideas grant of the European Research Council (ERC CoG PROSOCIAL 681632 to E.A.C.). We confirm that this work is original and has not been published elsewhere, nor is it currently under consideration for publication elsewhere. The authors thank all participants for their contribution. We also thank Lisa Kool, Dorien Huijser, Anna van Steenbergen, and Cevdet Acarsoy for their help with the data collection. A special contribution is owed to Suzanne van deGroep, who started and carried this entire project with unique professionalism, thank you!

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020, The Author(s).


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