Cookies on this website

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Accept all cookies' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. If you click 'Reject all non-essential cookies' only necessary cookies providing core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility will be enabled. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

According to normative theories, reward-maximizing agents should have consistent preferences. Thus, when faced with alternatives A, B, and C, an individual preferring A to B and B to C should prefer A to C. However, it has been widely argued that humans can incur losses by violating this axiom of transitivity, despite strong evolutionary pressure for reward-maximizing choices. Here, adopting a biologically plausible computational framework, we show that intransitive (and thus economically irrational) choices paradoxically improve accuracy (and subsequent economic rewards) when decision formation is corrupted by internal neural noise. Over three experiments, we show that humans accumulate evidence over time using a "selective integration" policy that discards information about alternatives with momentarily lower value. This policy predicts violations of the axiom of transitivity when three equally valued alternatives differ circularly in their number of winning samples. We confirm this prediction in a fourth experiment reporting significant violations of weak stochastic transitivity in human observers. Crucially, we show that relying on selective integration protects choices against "late" noise that otherwise corrupts decision formation beyond the sensory stage. Indeed, we report that individuals with higher late noise relied more strongly on selective integration. These findings suggest that violations of rational choice theory reflect adaptive computations that have evolved in response to irreducible noise during neural information processing.

Original publication




Journal article


Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A

Publication Date





3102 - 3107


choice optimality, decision making, evidence accumulation, irrationality, selective integration, Adolescent, Adult, Choice Behavior, Decision Theory, Feedback, Psychological, Female, Form Perception, Games, Experimental, Humans, Judgment, Male, Middle Aged, Models, Economic, Models, Psychological, Photic Stimulation, Psychophysics, Reward, Video Games, Young Adult