The neural substrates of probabilistic and intertemporal decision making

Brain Res. 2008 Oct 9;1234:104-15. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2008.07.105. Epub 2008 Aug 6.


Many important decisions involve outcomes that are either probabilistic or delayed. Based on similarities in decision preferences, models of decision making have postulated that the same psychological processes may underlie decisions involving probabilities (i.e., risky choice) and decisions involving delay (i.e., intertemporal choice). Equivocal behavioral evidence has made this hypothesis difficult to evaluate. However, a combination of functional neuroimaging and behavioral data may allow identification of differences between these forms of decision making. Here, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine brain activation in subjects making a series of choices between pairs of real monetary rewards that differed either in their relative risk or their relative delay. While both sorts of choices evoked activation in brain systems previously implicated in executive control, we observed clear distinctions between these forms of decision making. Notably, choices involving risk evoked greater activation in posterior parietal and lateral prefrontal cortices, whereas choices involving delay evoked greater activation in the posterior cingulate cortex and the striatum. Moreover, activation of regions associated with reward evaluation predicted choices of a more-risky option, whereas activation of control regions predicted choices of more-delayed or less-risky options. These results indicate that there are differences in the patterns of brain activation evoked by risky and intertemporal choices, suggesting that the two domains utilize at least partially distinct sets of cognitive processes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / physiology
  • Choice Behavior
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality / physiology
  • Gambling / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Individuality
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Reward
  • Risk
  • Risk-Taking*
  • Time Factors
  • Young Adult