A behavioral neuroscience primer: Reward, decision-making, and neuroeconomics

Introduction (via Professor Wolfram Schultz FRS, University of Cambridge)

Recent work in behavioural neuroscience has examined how humans and animals make economic decisions about gains and losses. This research is based conceptually on animal learning theory and economic choice theory. It investigates how individual neurons in animals and brain regions in humans process information about gains (rewards) and losses (punishments) and use this information to make economic choices. As animal work forms an important part of this research, investigations are more frequently directed at reward than punishment. The field also incorporates data from brain lesions and pharmacological manipulations of neurotransmitters. The term ‘neuroeconomics’ refers to the neurobiological basis of economic decision making. It combines economic choice theory with neuroscience in order to understand the neuronal basis for economic decisions. For review articles see Glimcher et al. 2008 and Schultz 2008.

The functions of rewarding and punishing outcomes are not defi ned by specifi c sensory receptors but are inferred from their influence on behaviour. Rewards are objects or events that induce approach learning (positive reinforcement in animal learning theory), serve as arguments for economic (value-related) decisions,engage positive emotions such as joy, and produce hedonic feelings. Rewards support elementary processes such as eating, drinking and sex, and engage individuals in such diverse behaviours as novelty seeking, foraging, trading on stock markets and social interactions. By contrast, punishments have largely opposite effects to rewards, inducing avoidance learning, negative emotions such as fear, and feelings of displeasure. Obtaining rewards and avoiding punishments is crucial for individual and gene survival.

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25. January 2011 by Miguel Barbosa
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