Happy endings trip up the brain's decision-making

October 19, 2020

The brain keeps track of the value of an experience as well as how it unfolds over time; overemphasizing the ending may trigger poor decision-making, according to new research published in JNeurosci.

A bout of bad weather at the end of a vacation can sour the impression of the entire trip. The tendency to focus on the ending may stem from how the brain encodes the value and temporal profile of an experience.

Vestergaard and Schultz created a computational model explaining how participants chose between two streams of coins varying in size where larger coins have a higher value. The model revealed a discrepancy between the true value of an experience -- how much money was in the stream -- and the value people placed on how it developed. People disliked when the coins decreased in size, even if the stream was worth more money overall, resulting in their making the wrong decision.

The findings from the model tracked with brain activity data from fMRI. During the task, the amygdala encoded the actual value of a choice, while the anterior insula encoded dislike towards a negative ending -- in this case, if the coin stream decreased in size. This representation can overpower information from the amygdala, leading people to undervalue experiences that end poorly despite starting well. The best decision-makers had the strongest representation in the amygdala, indicating an ability to disregard a lesser ending and choose the better option.
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Manuscript title: Retrospective Valuation of Experienced Outcome Encoded in Distinct Reward Representations in the Anterior Insula and Amygdala

About JNeurosci

JNeurosci, the Society for Neuroscience's first journal, was launched in 1981 as a means to communicate the findings of the highest quality neuroscience research to the growing field. Today, the journal remains committed to publishing cutting-edge neuroscience that will have an immediate and lasting scientific impact, while responding to authors' changing publishing needs, representing breadth of the field and diversity in authorship.

About The Society for Neuroscience

The Society for Neuroscience is the world's largest organization of scientists and physicians devoted to understanding the brain and nervous system. The nonprofit organization, founded in 1969, now has nearly 37,000 members in more than 90 countries and over 130 chapters worldwide.

Society for Neuroscience

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