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This or That: Decision-making

Christine Fernandes,

St. Xavier's College (Autonomous),

Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

“Life is a sum of all your choices” – Albert Camus

Should I opt for a particular course that is going to prove beneficial for me immediately? Should I consider taking a year’s break that could help me get to find a different path than I had initially planned? These are a few sets of questions that you generally ponder upon whilst you are on a future career search spree. Let’s get a little deeper into this and get to know how exactly we decide and make decisions. Decision-making is choosing one option from the multiple choices available to us. Our life is made up of moment-to-moment decisions. Right from the morning when we need to decide to wake up early or just press the snooze button and go back to sleep, till the end of the day our brain is continuously making decisions some of which we aren’t even aware of. Some decisions are easier and can be made automatically, others more difficult and some extremely complex and challenging, hence require more deliberation. Major decisions make a difference to us while the less important ones do not, as the major decisions are the ones that shape the course of our lives.

Our decision-making is affected by several factors like our genes, neural activity, a cognitive system, society, social context, and the environment. Memory, as well as attention, can modify our decisions. Our decisions are very much dependent on the framing of options, it has the ability to change our decisions to a large extent. There is a constant conflict between decisions leading to immediate pleasurable consequences (rewards) versus decisions focusing on the long-term advantages. How various countries have handled the covid pandemic clearly points out how necessary effective decision-making needs to be done for handling such complicated situations.

Our decisions are programmed by the neuronal population and their activity. Various brain areas are involved in the decision-making process. So let us explore our brain and its different areas that will help us understand how we make lean towards certain decisions.

Unraveling the neurobiology of Decision-making

Decision-making is a complex process, dependent on the integrity of neural networks from various regions of the brain. It involves a lot of information processing taking into account various factors like emotions and memories. Researchers have shown through experiments how various brain areas like the frontal lobe, the limbic system, and the midbrain region are involved in making decisions. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is situated in the frontal lobe and its function is executed, therefore it plays a major role in the circuit of decision-making. The prefrontal cortex includes vital areas such as the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC),the frontal polar cortex. The prefrontal cortex interacts with the striatum, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), basal ganglia, thalamus, and cerebellum and aids in the decision-making process.

The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) is the cortex located above our eyes. It has a rich neural network with the limbic region and therefore associates outcomes with emotions. It is involved in the reward-based experience which is purely dependent on the incentive gains. The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) assigns values to the various options available by considering the future consequence, while the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) eases complex decisions by incorporating multiple processes such as planning, sequencing, reasoning, concentration, and working memory. The frontal polar cortex helps with future planning and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) helps in sorting among complicated options available and also helps in the outcome-processing. The nucleus accumbens (ventral striatum) is a dopamine-activated area located within the striatum and is linked to the limbic system. It is a crucial area for decision-making and reward-related behavior. The region along with the dopamine system helps with the process of evaluation of the outcomes of our decisions. On exposure to a rewarding stimulus, this region gets flooded with dopamine, hence called the reward or pleasure center. The basolateral amygdala (BLA) of the limbic region also helps in making the right choices. The posterior part of the pituitary gland produces oxytocin hormone, while helps to take decisions in a social context.

The model for decision-making shows how the regions of the prefrontal cortex, limbic system, and midbrain work together to help in the process of decision-making. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex helps in information processing and sets up a plan for the reward outcome which will be obtained based on an appraisal of the orbitofrontal cortex’s reward value. The anterior cingulate cortex evaluates the probability of the success of the setup initiated by the dlPFC before the final execution. The nucleus accumbens obtains information from the hippocampus which is involved in memory. The hippocampus gets information from the frontal cortex. The frontal cortex gathers information from the amygdala and encodes the potential costs of our decision. In this manner, linking different areas of the brain during decision-making helps calculate values for our decisions. If any part of this neural network suffers damage or even the slightest lesion it can lead to an admissible loss in decision-making.

For example, you have been offered a cake. Sensory inputs of you being offered the cake will come in from all your sensations, the information goes to occipital lobe via the thalamus, from occipital to temporal and then parietal lobe and finally, it goes to frontal lobe to make the decision, frontopolar will think about the future whether eating a cake is a healthy decision and what would be the long term implications of it, then insula will tell whether you are hungry or not hungry, the orbitofrontal cortex will tell whether you enjoy eating cake or not, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex will examine the plan and attach value to the cake. The amygdala will trigger the emotion of happiness and dopamine reaches the nucleus accumbens and gives you an anticipatory reward and will finally tell the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex the decision to have the cake. This experience will strengthen the orbitofrontal cortex in knowing that the earlier presumption that was made about being a cake person was right. If we come across a similar situation like this in the future, the brain will be able to make decisions even more rapidly due to this experience.

Process of Decision-Making and the factors that influence the process

Most of the basic processes in any method involve input, processing, and finally an output. The decision-making process follows the same principles: The input is the options available, the processing is the option evaluation and finally the output is the final decision that we make after the overall process. The Decision-making process is described in the subsequent phases:

Phase one-Deliberation for making the decision, further subdivided into decision representation and option evaluation. Now based on the given situation or problem at hand, in decision representation the brain identifies and generates options and also the costs and benefits involving each of them. Taking these options into consideration, it needs to be taken into account the sensory inputs, emotional responses, autonomic responses, memories, and future goals. A lot of effort goes into seeing a bigger picture of these options such as creativity, imagination, and pattern recognition. In this representation phase, we can also include the experience gained from potential outcomes.

Phase two- This phase consists of option evaluation. Evaluating your options helps you to prioritize and assign values to them based on the given situation. Nothing has inherent value. There's a system of grading, where some options have more value than the other ones. Food has been given positive value because your body requires it for its functioning whereas threatening situations are assigned a negative value. The evaluation needs to be done by considering various factors such as context, hedonic assessment in which greater value is assigned for preferable things, reward anticipation- will your expected result be awarded to you with ease or would you have to wait for your fruitful expected reward, reward experience- the amount of joy you will get on receiving that reward. time and delay- the amount of time the reward will take, probability of risk- chances of losing something or not receiving a reward, expectation- the learning from a particular choice made, that will help us make better decisions next time. For example, say you are sitting for a test and you are a bit jittery to answer the questions, you have been given two options, both of which you know quite well, but you are more likely to answer the question that you are more comfortable and confident about and which could give you a possibly higher grade than the other.

Phase three- Outcome of decision making, which is the outcome or choice evaluation period, which is followed by action selection. Based on the evaluation, the values obtained for several options will finally lead to making a choice. This evaluative process is necessary to make choices in the future.

Final phase - The feedback period, which involves presenting the new updated processes and choices which will help improve the quality of future decisions. The circle of decision-making enables every individual to alter, remodel, improve and upgrade the quality of decisions to be taken in the future.

Various factors can influence the process of decision-making such as emotions, uncertainty, decisions in social settings. Emotions play a very important role in influencing our decisions. The uncertainty shows the absence of certain information, it can lead to a phenomenon called ‘temporal discounting’ if the delay is increased before a reward is received. If there are too many options available that itself creates a lot of confusion and individuals can't make up their minds. In social settings, while making decisions as a group, the person must consider the options of the other members as well and together unitedly take a decision.

Advancement in the field of Decision-making

So why do we need to learn and study decision-making? It tells us about how various regions of the brain put together the available information to help it make decisions. Giving us an insight into many clinical problems, as well as treatments for certain addictions. Individuals who suffer from certain psychiatric diseases, as well as those that suffer from disorders like autism, schizophrenia, and ADHD, are not able to make appropriate decisions like the rest of the individuals, so this could help us get a deeper input into their brain so we can understand them and their problems in a smoother and better way. It also helps us understand why we end up making bad decisions, and how to avoid making more bad decisions in the future.

How will the field of decision-making progress in the coming years? Definitely, new and advanced technologies will increase our ability to understand decision circuits in more detail. In recent times, researchers have made use of neuroscience tools and incorporated this knowledge in a better understanding of the various mechanisms of choice-making and this has led to a new field. This field is also known as ‘Neuroeconomics’ which studies decision making and incorporates various other study fields such as neuroscience, economics, psychology, computer science. The aim of neuroeconomics is to study the biological basis of human decision-making that can help naturally as well as social sciences to identify the value of outcomes, the risk involved with outcomes, and results of social interactions. Research in this field has provided many new insights into brain function and will continue to enhance the knowledge of decision-making circuitry.


Decision-making is a very important component of an individual’s life as it has an effect on our day-to-day life. By improving our choice-making skills and by experience, we can improve ourselves and make more good decisions than bad/poor ones. Decisions are necessary and key components to a better and successful future.


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Image References:

Image 1- Decision-making. (2020). [Image]. From

Image 2- Brain areas involved in decision making. (2020). [Image]. From

Image 3- Process of decision making. (2020). [Image]. From

Image 4- Neuroeconomics. (2020). [Image]. From

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