Neural correlates of intertemporal choice in aggressive behavior

David S. Chester, Sarah Beth Bell, C. Nathan DeWall, Samuel J. West, Marisabel Romero-Lopez, Adam W. Craig

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

9 Scopus citations


People often have to make decisions between immediate rewards and more long-term goals. Such intertemporal judgments are often investigated in the context of monetary choice or drug use, yet not in regard to aggressive behavior. We combined a novel intertemporal aggression paradigm with functional neuroimaging to examine the role of temporal delay in aggressive behavior and the neural correlates thereof. Sixty-one participants (aged 18–22 years; 37 females) exhibited substantial variability in the extent to which they selected immediate acts of lesser aggression versus delayed acts of greater aggression against a same-sex opponent. Choosing delayed-yet-more-severe aggression was increased by provocation and associated with greater self-control. Preferences for delayed aggression were associated with greater activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC) during such choices, and reduced functional connectivity between the VMPFC and brain regions implicated in motor impulsivity. Preferences for immediate aggression were associated with reduced functional connectivity between the VMPFC and the frontoparietal control network. Dispositionally aggressive participants exhibited reduced VMPFC activity, which partially explained and suppressed their preferences for delayed aggression. Blunted VMPFC activity may thus be a neural mechanism that promotes reactive aggression towards provocateurs among dispositionally aggressive individuals. These findings demonstrate the utility of an intertemporal framework for investigating aggression and provide further evidence for the similar underlying neurobiology between aggression and other rewarding behaviors.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)507-516
Number of pages10
JournalAggressive Behavior
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was supported by funds from the University of Kentucky's Gatton College of Business and Economics (PI: Craig) and from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) of the National Institutes of Health under award number K01AA026647 (PI: Chester).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.


  • aggression
  • delay discounting
  • fMRI
  • intertemporal choice
  • ventromedial prefrontal cortex

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Psychology (all)


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