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Optimal policy for multi-alternative decisions


Everyday decisions frequently require choosing among multiple alternatives. Yet the optimal policy for such decisions is unknown. Here we derive the normative policy for general multi-alternative decisions. This strategy requires evidence accumulation to nonlinear, time-dependent bounds that trigger choices. A geometric symmetry in those boundaries allows the optimal strategy to be implemented by a simple neural circuit involving normalization with fixed decision bounds and an urgency signal. The model captures several key features of the response of decision-making neurons as well as the increase in reaction time as a function of the number of alternatives, known as Hick’s law. In addition, we show that in the presence of divisive normalization and internal variability, our model can account for several so-called ‘irrational’ behaviors, such as the similarity effect as well as the violation of both the independence of irrelevant alternatives principle and the regularity principle.

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Fig. 1: Multi-alternative decision tasks and the standard race model.
Fig. 2: The optimal decision policy for three alternative choices.
Fig. 3: Normalization and urgency improve task performance.
Fig. 4: The model replicates the neuronal urgency signal and Hick’s law in choice reaction times.
Fig. 5: Activity normalization and violation of the axiom of IIA independence.
Fig. 6: Regularity and similarity principles.
Fig. 7: The optimal policy predicts a smooth transition between the max versus next and max versus average decision strategies depending on the relative values of the three options.

Data availability

Data sharing is not applicable to this article since no datasets were generated or analyzed during the current study.

Code availability

These results of this article were generated using code written in MATLAB. The code is available at


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A.P. was supported by the Swiss National Foundation (grant no. 31003A_143707) and a grant from the Simons Foundation (no. 325057). J.D. was supported by a Scholar Award in Understanding Human Cognition by the James S. McDonnell Foundation (grant no. 220020462). We dedicate this paper to the memory of S. Tajima, who tragically passed away in August 2017.

Author information




S.T., J.D. and A.P. conceived the study. S.T. and J.D. developed the theoretical framework. S.T., J.D. and N.P. performed the simulations and conducted the mathematical analysis. S.T., J.D., N.P. and A.P. interpreted the results and wrote the paper.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Jan Drugowitsch or Alexandre Pouget.

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The authors declare no competing interest.

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Peer review information: Nature Neuroscience thanks Jennifer Trueblood and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Integrated supplementary information

Supplementary Figure 1 Addition of variability to the accumulator affects models’ relative performance.

The race model variants without constrained evidence accumulation approximating the optimal policy perform much worse than our model’s variants with that constraint, a result that is demonstrated in Fig. 5c. Here, we show that reducing the amount of variability in the decision bounds brings the models’ relative performances closer to each other as was the case in Fig. 3. As in Figs. 3 and 5c, this figure shows the reward rate of the race model with (green) and without (orange) the urgency signal relative to our full model with urgency and constrained evidence accumulation (blue). Each point represents the mean reward rate across 106 simulated trials.

Supplementary Figure 2 Dependencies of the stopping boundaries on task parameters.

We show how the decision boundaries change as a function of time (a), inter-trial interval (b), noise variance (c), and with symmetric (d) and asymmetric (e) prior mean of reward. (a) Dynamics of decision boundaries over time, t. The decision boundaries approach each other over time. Here, we used the following parameters: reward prior, \(\left( {\bar z_1,\bar z_2,\bar z_3} \right) = \left( {\bar z,\bar z,\bar z} \right) = (0.1,0.1,0.1)\); inter trial interval (ITI, including non-decision time), tw = 0.5; noise variance, \(\sigma _x^2 = 2\). In (b)-(e) we varied a single parameter, while keeping all other parameters constant. The shown boundaries are the initial ones, at time t = 0. (b) Effect of inter trial interval (ITI), tw. The boundaries start further apart for longer ITIs. tw = 0.5 corresponds to the leftmost plot in panel a. (c) Effect of the evidence noise variance, \(\sigma _x^2\). The boundaries start further apart for larger noise. \(\sigma _x^2 = 2\) corresponds to the leftmost plot in panel a. (d) Effect of the reward prior mean, \(\bar z\). The boundaries start closer to each other for larger mean rewards. \(\bar z = 0.1\) corresponds to the leftmost plot in panel a. (e) Effect of the asymmetric reward prior, \((\bar z_1,\bar z_2,\bar z_3)\), where \(\bar z_1\), \(\bar z_2\), and \(\bar z_3\) can be different from each other. The boundaries remain parallel to the cube diagonal but the asymmetric priors cause a shift of the boundary positions when projected on the triangle orthogonal to the diagonal, such that the boundaries corresponding to the most rewarded options start closer to the center of the triangle. \((\bar z_1,\bar z_2,\bar z_3) = (0.1,0.1,0.1)\) is identical to the leftmost plot in panel a. We have not been able to derive analytical approximations to the stopping bounds but note that the neural network provides a close approximation to the optimal bound with only three parameters. Given the shape and time dependence of the bounds, it is unlikely that it is possible to obtain an analytical solution with fewer parameters.

Supplementary Figure 3 The optimal urgency signal is only weakly dependent on accumulation cost and nonlinearity.

Each panel shows combinations of urgency signal parameters (vertical axis; offset or slope) and cost (left panels) or nonlinearity (right panels) setting the reward rate (value-based decisions; top) or correct rate (perceptual decision; bottom) as a color gradient. For each parameter combination, reward and correct rate were found by simulating 500,000 trials. The black line in each panel indicates for each cost or nonlinearity setting the value of the urgency signal parameter that maximizes the reward/correct rate. This line is noisy due to the simulation-based stochastic evaluation of the reward/correct rates. In general, both optimal slope and offset only weekly depend on the accumulation cost. The same applies to the nonlinearity, except for a narrow band around 1.5, where it is best to decrease both slope and offset for an increase in this nonlinearity.

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Tajima, S., Drugowitsch, J., Patel, N. et al. Optimal policy for multi-alternative decisions. Nat Neurosci 22, 1503–1511 (2019).

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