The Neuroscience of Decision-Making


In recent years, our understanding the biology behind human decision-making has expanded, as neuroscientists have made discoveries that shed light on disorders related to decision-making deficits, such as addiction, obesity, and neurological and psychiatric disorders. The use of brain-measurement technologies has meanwhile crept into the public sphere in other ways; for example, marketers and political scientists have started to use MRI scanners to market-test their advertising.

Yet while much has been learned, important gaps remain in our knowledge about how our brains make decisions, and researchers have struggled to translate scientific knowledge into practical usages.

In Spring 2014, Social Science Matrix sponsored an interdisciplinary seminar organized to advance our understanding of this key convergence between biology and social science. Led by Ming Hsu, Assistant Professor at the Business Haas School of Business, the seminar assembled researchers in the field of neurology, business, and a variety of related social-science disciplines.

“Our goal was to bring together the different traditions of biology and the social sciences, such as psychology, economics, political science, to understand the biological substrates of economic behavior,” explains Hsu. “We wanted to learn how people make financial, social, and moral decisions at a very basic genetic and molecular level, all the way to economic models and psychological processes.”

Among the questions considered in this seminar: how do we incorporate the role of emotions, language, and memory in current models of decision-making? How do we study the role of hormones, neurotransmitters, and genes in decision-making? What are the emerging techniques and methods (whether they be fMRI, behavioral modeling, lesion studies, or animal models) that can shed light on these questions?

Hsu says the seminar helped find “fruitful directions” for thinking about these and other questions; the participants created an action plan for next steps and set a goal to continue the collaboration, which involves scholars at UC Berkeley and UCSF. “It has been a challenge to get these ideas from bench to bedside,” he says. “We want to create better incentives and align interests to bridge the science and commercial applications in ways that include everyone.”

To learn more, visit the home of UC Berkeley's Neuroeconomics Laboratory.