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A framework for studying the neurobiology of value-based decision making

Key Points

  • Most behavioural and computational models of decision making assume that the following five processes are carried out at the time the decision is made: representation, action valuation, action selection, outcome valuation, and learning.

  • On the basis of a sizeable body of animal and human behavioural evidence, several groups have proposed the existence of three different types of valuation systems: Pavlovian, habitual and goal-directed systems.

  • Pavlovian systems assign value to only a small set of 'prepared' behaviours and thus have a limited behavioural repertoire. Nevertheless, they might be the driving force behind behaviours with important economic consequences (for example, overeating). Examples include preparatory behaviours, such as approaching a cue that predicts food, and consummatory behaviours, such as ingesting available food.

  • Habit valuation systems learn to assign values to stimulus–response associations on the basis of previous experience through a process of trial-and-error. Examples of habits include a smoker's desire to have a cigarette at particular times of day (for example, after a meal) and a rat's tendency to forage in a cue-dependent location after sufficient training.

  • Goal-directed systems assign values to actions by computing action–outcome associations and then evaluating the rewards that are associated with the different outcomes. An example of a goal-directed behaviour is the decision what to eat at a new restaurant.

  • An important difference between habitual and goal-directed systems has to do with how they respond to changes in the environment. The goal-directed system updates the value of an action as soon as the value of its outcome changes, whereas the habit system only learns with repeated experience.

  • The values computed by the three systems can be modulated by factors such as the risk that is associated with the decision, the time delay to the outcomes, and social considerations.

  • The quality of the decisions made by an animal depend on how its brain assigns control to the different valuation systems in situations in which it has to make a choice between several potential actions that are assigned conflicting values.

  • The learning properties of the habit system seem to be well-described by simple reinforcement algorithms, such as Q-learning. Some of the key computations that are predicted by these models are instantiated in the dopamine system.


Neuroeconomics is the study of the neurobiological and computational basis of value-based decision making. Its goal is to provide a biologically based account of human behaviour that can be applied in both the natural and the social sciences. This Review proposes a framework to investigate different aspects of the neurobiology of decision making. The framework allows us to bring together recent findings in the field, highlight some of the most important outstanding problems, define a common lexicon that bridges the different disciplines that inform neuroeconomics, and point the way to future applications.

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Figure 1: Basic computations involved in making a choice.
Figure 2: Conflict between the valuation systems.


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Financial support from the National Science Foundation (SES-0134618, A.R.) and the Human Frontier Science Program (C.F.C.) is gratefully acknowledged. This work was also supported by a grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation to the Caltech Brain Imaging Center (A.R., C.F.C.). R.M. acknowledges support from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, The Kane Family Foundation, The Angel Williamson Imaging Center and The Dana Foundation.

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The appetitive or aversive nature of a stimulus.

Propositional logic system

A cognitive system that makes predictions about the world on the basis of known pieces of information.

Statistical moments

Properties of a distribution, such as mean and variance.

Expected-utility theory

A theory that states that the value of a prospect (or of random rewards) equals the sum of the value of the potential outcomes weighted by their probability.

Prospect theory

An alternative to the expected utility theory that also pertains to how to evaluate prospects.

Dual-process models

A class of psychological models in which two processes with different properties compete to determine the outcome of a computation.

Race-to-barrier diffusion process

A stochastic process that terminates when the variable of interest reaches a certain threshold value.

Credit-assignment problem

The problem of crediting rewards to particular actions in complex environments.

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Rangel, A., Camerer, C. & Montague, P. A framework for studying the neurobiology of value-based decision making. Nat Rev Neurosci 9, 545–556 (2008).

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