The value of environmental cues and internal states is continuously evaluated by the human brain, and it is this subjective value that largely guides decision making. The present study aimed to investigate the initial value attribution process, specifically the spatiotemporal activation patterns associated with values and valuation context, using electroencephalographic event-related potentials (ERPs). Participants completed a stimulus rating task in which everyday household items marketed up to a price of £4 were evaluated with respect to their desirability or material properties. The subjective values of items were evaluated as willingness to pay (WTP) in a Becker-DeGroot-Marschak auction. On the basis of the individual’s subjective WTP values, the stimuli were divided into high- and low-value items. Source dipole modeling was applied to estimate the cortical sources underlying ERP components modulated by subjective values (high vs. low WTP) and the evaluation condition (valuerelevant vs. value-irrelevant judgments). Low-WTP items and valuerelevant judgments both led to a more pronounced N2 visual evoked potential at right frontal scalp electrodes. Source activity in right anterior insula and left orbitofrontal cortex was larger for low vs. high WTP at ~200 ms. At a similar latency, source activity in right anterior insula and right parahippocampal gyrus was larger for value-relevant vs. value-irrelevant judgments. A stronger response for low- than high-value items in anterior insula and orbitofrontal cortex appears to reflect aversion to low-valued item acquisition, which in an auction experiment would be perceived as a relative loss. This initial lowvalue bias occurs automatically irrespective of the valuation context. NEW & NOTEWORTHY We demonstrate the spatiotemporal characteristics of the brain valuation process using event-related potentials and willingness to pay as a measure of subjective value. The N2 component resolves values of objects with a bias toward low-value items. The value-related changes of the N2 component are part of an automatic valuation process.
- Becker-DeGroot-Marschak mechanism
- Orbitofrontal cortex