The neurobiology behind our choices

When Ray Dolan, M.D., had to run an errand, he took a risk, did not feed the parking meter, and got a ticket for $200. If he paid the ticket within 14 days, the fine print on the ticket informed him, he could cut the fine in half. Still he did nothing.

The parking ticket, said Dolan, the Mary Kinross Professor of Neuropsychiatry and director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at University College London (UCL), triggered a negative Pavlovian response associated with a hard-wired disposition not to act. Dolan’s handling of the ticket was a case in point in his talk at the Yale/UCL Senior Scientist Lecture Series in March. The talk centered on his research into values, choice, decision making, and action.

Dolan described in neurobiological detail the interactions that occur in such regions of the brain as the orbital prefrontal cortex and the striatum when people are engaged in values-based decision making. “We have multiple systems controlling our behavior, and most of the time they are in alignment,” he said. “So it’s striking when they come into opposition. This, I believe, accounts for lots of everyday behaviors in which people react suboptimally.”