How to get things done: unravelling the neurobiology of adaptive decision-making

Year of award: 2016


  • Dr Hanneke den Ouden

    University of Cambridge

Project summary

Our brains use at least two different ‘modes’ to make decisions. One mode is fast and almost automatic, but prone to mistakes. The other is more accurate, but takes a lot of time and mental effort. We don’t understand why, how and when we switch between these different modes. This is an important question because people who continuously try to achieve perfection have a high risk of burn-out. Perfectionism is also associated with psychiatric disorders like anxiety and depression.

We will investigate how people make imperfect decisions. We will analyse people’s brain activity while they perform various computer tasks in which they choose whether to use a ‘perfect’ or a ‘fast’ strategy. We will investigate how the brain chemicals dopamine and serotonin help to balance the costs and benefits of each strategy. Finally, we will ask people outside the lab to play our tasks online. Here we will investigate whether their task performance allows us to predict who can thrive in a work environment where there is no time to find a 100 per cent correct answer, and who might need a little help to avoid burn-out.