News Release

Buridan's donkey: Neuroscience resolves medieveal decision-making conundrum

Research shows how we avoid becoming paralyzed by indecision

Peer-Reviewed Publication

Society for Neuroscience

Incentivised Free-Choice Task

image: The incentivised free-choice task consisted of four consecutive phases: valuation phase 1, decision phase 1, valuation phase 2, decision phase 2. This task was followed by a choice memory task. view more 

Credit: Voigt et al., JNeurosci (2018)

The brain updates its preferences in real-time in order to choose between two equally attractive options, reveals a human neuroimaging and eye-tracking study published in JNeurosci. The research shows how we avoid becoming paralyzed by indecision like the starving donkey in a famous thought experiment.

In the 14th century the French philosopher Jean Buridan described a donkey that, unable to choose between two bales of hay, starves to death. Like the fictional donkey, people often must decide between two items of equal value. Previous studies have suggested people update their preferences after the fact in order to feel more confident in their decision.

Stefan Bode, Katharina Voigt, and colleagues tested an alternative hypothesis: difficult decisions actively shape one's preferences. The researchers found when faced with a choice between two desirable snack foods, participants activated a brain network that assigns values to different options during the decision-making process. This neural activity -- in addition to which snack participants' eyes focused on -- predicted how they would later reevaluate the items, valuing the chosen snack more than the unchosen one. These findings challenge traditional views of the relationship between decisions and preferences.


Article: Hard decisions shape the neural coding of preferences*


Corresponding author: Stefan Bode (The University of Melbourne, Parkville, Australia),

*A preprint of this manuscript has been posted on bioRxiv:

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.

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