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Psilocybin and MDMA reduce costly punishment in the Ultimatum Game

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Anthony S Gabay, Robin L Carhart-Harris, Ndaba Mazibuko, Matthew J Kempton, Paul D Morrison, David J Nutt, Mitul A Mehta

Original languageEnglish
Article number8236
JournalScientific Reports
Issue number1
Early online date29 May 2018
Accepted/In press15 May 2018
E-pub ahead of print29 May 2018
Published29 May 2018


King's Authors


Disruptions in social decision-making are becoming evident in many psychiatric conditions. These are studied using paradigms investigating the psychological mechanisms underlying interpersonal interactions, such as the Ultimatum Game (UG). Rejection behaviour in the UG represents altruistic punishment - the costly punishment of norm violators - but the mechanisms underlying it require clarification. To investigate the psychopharmacology of UG behaviour, we carried out two studies with healthy participants, employing serotonergic agonists: psilocybin (open-label, within-participant design, N = 19) and 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA; placebo-controlled, double-blind, crossover design, N = 20). We found that both MDMA and psilocybin reduced rejection of unfair offers (odds ratio: 0.57 and 0.42, respectively). The reduction in rejection rate following MDMA was associated with increased prosociality (R2 = 0.26, p = 0.025). In the MDMA study, we investigated third-party decision-making and proposer behaviour. MDMA did not reduce rejection in the third-party condition, but produced an increase in the amount offered to others (Cohen's d = 0.82). We argue that these compounds altered participants' conceptualisation of 'social reward', placing more emphasis on the direct relationship with interacting partners. With these compounds showing efficacy in drug-assisted psychotherapy, these studies are an important step in the further characterisation of their psychological effects.

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