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Neural correlates, computation and behavioural impact of decision confidence

Abstract

Humans and other animals must often make decisions on the basis of imperfect evidence1,2. Statisticians use measures such as P values to assign degrees of confidence to propositions, but little is known about how the brain computes confidence estimates about decisions. We explored this issue using behavioural analysis and neural recordings in rats in combination with computational modelling. Subjects were trained to perform an odour categorization task that allowed decision confidence to be manipulated by varying the distance of the test stimulus to the category boundary. To understand how confidence could be computed along with the choice itself, using standard models of decision-making3,4,5,6, we defined a simple measure that quantified the quality of the evidence contributing to a particular decision. Here we show that the firing rates of many single neurons in the orbitofrontal cortex match closely to the predictions of confidence models and cannot be readily explained by alternative mechanisms, such as learning stimulus–outcome associations7,8,9,10. Moreover, when tested using a delayed reward version of the task, we found that rats’ willingness to wait for rewards increased with confidence, as predicted by the theoretical model. These results indicate that confidence estimates, previously suggested to require ‘metacognition’11,12 and conscious awareness13,14, are available even in the rodent brain, can be computed with relatively simple operations, and can drive adaptive behaviour. We suggest that confidence estimation may be a fundamental and ubiquitous component of decision-making.

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Figure 1: Odour mixture categorization task.
Figure 2: Graded representation of stimulus difficulty in orbitofrontal cortex.
Figure 3: Orbitofrontal neurons anticipate trial outcome.
Figure 4: Confidence estimation in a decision model and by OFC neurons.
Figure 5: Behavioural use of decision confidence.

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Acknowledgements

We thank J. Paton, A. Pouget, S. Raghavachari, G. Turner and members of the Mainen laboratory for comments on the manuscript. Support was provided by the National Institutes of Health (NIDCD) (Z.F.M.), the Center for the Neural Mechanisms of Cognition at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (Z.F.M.), and the Swartz Foundation (A.K., N.U., Z.F.M).

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Correspondence to Adam Kepecs or Zachary F. Mainen.

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Kepecs, A., Uchida, N., Zariwala, H. et al. Neural correlates, computation and behavioural impact of decision confidence. Nature 455, 227–231 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature07200

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