Deciding when to decide: time-variant sequential sampling models explain the emergence of value-based decisions in the human brain

J Neurosci. 2012 Aug 1;32(31):10686-98. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0727-12.2012.


The cognitive and neuronal mechanisms of perceptual decision making have been successfully linked to sequential sampling models. These models describe the decision process as a gradual accumulation of sensory evidence over time. The temporal evolution of economic choices, however, remains largely unexplored. We tested whether sequential sampling models help to understand the formation of value-based decisions in terms of behavior and brain responses. We used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain activity while human participants performed a buying task in which they freely decided upon how and when to choose. Behavior was accurately predicted by a time-variant sequential sampling model that uses a decreasing rather than fixed decision threshold to estimate the time point of the decision. Presupplementary motor area, caudate nucleus, and anterior insula activation was associated with the accumulation of evidence over time. Furthermore, at the beginning of the decision process the fMRI signal in these regions accounted for trial-by-trial deviations from behavioral model predictions: relatively high activation preceded relatively early responses. The updating of value information was correlated with signals in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, left and right orbitofrontal cortex, and ventral striatum but also in the primary motor cortex well before the response itself. Our results support a view of value-based decisions as emerging from sequential sampling of evidence and suggest a close link between the accumulation process and activity in the motor system when people are free to respond at any time.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / blood supply
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Choice Behavior / physiology*
  • Computer Simulation
  • Decision Making / physiology*
  • Exploratory Behavior / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Models, Neurological*
  • Neural Pathways / blood supply
  • Neural Pathways / physiology
  • Oxygen / blood
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Probability
  • Reaction Time / physiology*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Time Factors
  • Young Adult


  • Oxygen