Optimal temporal risk assessment

Front Integr Neurosci. 2011 Sep 27;5:56. doi: 10.3389/fnint.2011.00056. eCollection 2011.


Time is an essential feature of most decisions, because the reward earned from decisions frequently depends on the temporal statistics of the environment (e.g., on whether decisions must be made under deadlines). Accordingly, evolution appears to have favored a mechanism that predicts intervals in the seconds to minutes range with high accuracy on average, but significant variability from trial to trial. Importantly, the subjective sense of time that results is sufficiently imprecise that maximizing rewards in decision-making can require substantial behavioral adjustments (e.g., accumulating less evidence for a decision in order to beat a deadline). Reward maximization in many daily decisions therefore requires optimal temporal risk assessment. Here, we review the temporal decision-making literature, conduct secondary analyses of relevant published datasets, and analyze the results of a new experiment. The paper is organized in three parts. In the first part, we review literature and analyze existing data suggesting that animals take account of their inherent behavioral variability (their "endogenous timing uncertainty") in temporal decision-making. In the second part, we review literature that quantitatively demonstrates nearly optimal temporal risk assessment with sub-second and supra-second intervals using perceptual tasks (with humans and mice) and motor timing tasks (with humans). We supplement this section with original research that tested human and rat performance on a task that requires finding the optimal balance between two time-dependent quantities for reward maximization. This optimal balance in turn depends on the level of timing uncertainty. Corroborating the reviewed literature, humans and rats exhibited nearly optimal temporal risk assessment in this task. In the third section, we discuss the role of timing uncertainty in reward maximization in two-choice perceptual decision-making tasks and review literature that implicates timing uncertainty as an important factor in performance quality. Together, these studies strongly support the hypothesis that animals take normative account of their endogenous timing uncertainty. By incorporating the psychophysics of interval timing into the study of reward maximization, our approach bridges empirical and theoretical gaps between the interval timing and decision-making literatures.

Keywords: decision-making; interval timing; optimality; psychophysics; reward maximization; risk assessment; uncertainty.