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Making the best choice when faced with a chain of decisions requires a person to judge both anticipated outcomes and future actions. Although economic decision-making models account for both risk and reward in single-choice contexts, there is a dearth of similar knowledge about sequential choice. Classical utility-based models assume that decision-makers select and follow an optimal predetermined strategy, regardless of the particular order in which options are presented. An alternative model involves continuously reevaluating decision utilities, without prescribing a specific future set of choices. Here, using behavioral and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data, we studied human subjects in a sequential choice task and use these data to compare alternative decision models of valuation and strategy selection. We provide evidence that subjects adopt a model of reevaluating decision utilities, in which available strategies are continuously updated and combined in assessing action values. We validate this model by using simultaneously acquired fMRI data to show that sequential choice evokes a pattern of neural response consistent with a tracking of anticipated distribution of future reward, as expected in such a model. Thus, brain activity evoked at each decision point reflects the expected mean, variance, and skewness of possible payoffs, consistent with the idea that sequential choice evokes a prospective evaluation of both available strategies and possible outcomes.

Original publication




Journal article


J Neurosci

Publication Date





14380 - 14389


Adult, Algorithms, Behavior, Decision Making, Female, Gambling, Humans, Image Processing, Computer-Assisted, Linear Models, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, Male, Models, Psychological, Motivation, Reproducibility of Results, Risk Assessment, Young Adult