Decision Making: The Role of the Reward System

Subject: Decision Making
Pages: 5
Words: 1413
Reading time:
6 min
Study level: PhD

The major approaches and theories in decision making study

People have considered the nature of decision making from ancient times. For instance, Aristotle tried to decide what the most important in the decision making process is and became one of the proposers of virtue ethics (Tobler et al., 2008). Of course, since then people have developed other theories revealing the nature of decision making. To date, apart from virtue ethics scholars consider utilitarian and deontological theories. However, nowadays scientists focus not on moral or ethical aspects of the issue, but they try to define biological background in decision making. For instance, Engel and Singer (2008) consider the process from the evolutionary and psychological perspectives. In their turn Tobler et al. (2008) analyze neurological background and consider the connection between moral capabilities and nonmoral decision making. This research is very important for the overall study of decision making processes since it reveals new facets of the issue and depicts basic mechanisms in the process.

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The hypothesis addressed and its importance

The survey implemented by Tobler et al. (2008) addresses several central points in decision making and tries to test the following hypothesis. The researchers suggest that some “moral cognition” may use and benefit from “evolutionary old and proven reward decision mechanisms” (Tobler et al., 2008, p.393). The questions addressed in the paper are very important since they shed light on decision making process and suggest that not only moral or biological mechanisms influence. The survey suggests that the reward system plays an important role as well. Such findings can open up new horizons for the study of the process and, furthermore, develop some effective teaching techniques in decision making.

The experiments depicted in the article and their results

In order to test the hypothesis, the researchers analyzed economic decision making which is characterized by processing of such components as “magnitude and probability” by the reward system (Tobler et al., 2008, p.394). In simple terms this process can be illustrated by the decision between obtaining $500 or an option to get $1000 or $0. The researchers found that some people prefer taking sure sum of money over probable obtaining a larger amount of money. However, some individuals are more eager to take a risk. On the one hand, this difference can be explained by the “shape of the utility function” which can be defined by multiplying magnitudes with probabilities and the utility (Tobler et al., 2008, p.394). These findings should be regarded together with research results showing that “lateral prefrontal regions may weigh up costs and benefits in moral problems and medial prefrontal regions may process the emotional aspects of moral problems” (Tobler et al., 2008, p.394). On the basis of such findings Tobler et al. (2008) concluded that “a variety of reward regions contribute to the calculation of an economic utility signal”, and that these areas (at least some of them) “overlap” with regions implied during moral utility processing (394). It is necessary to point out that the researchers note that making moral (non-economical, concerning decisions associated with more responsibility, such as questions of life and death) at least two more interactive systems participate in the process: “deliberative” and “emotional” (Tobler et al., 2008, p.394). Another experiment depicted in the article by Tobler et al. (2008), a trust game, suggests valuable results in terms of reward system impact while decision making. The game presupposed that one group of people (proposers) invested money to another group (responders) which could give back some amount of the money obtained or keep everything. The findings of such experiment show that proposers were eager to invest more money to responders who previously turned a certain sum back and they did not want to interact with responders who kept the money. Tobler et al. (2008) assume that such results suggest that “moral perceptions can alter behavioral and neuronal reward- learning mechanisms” (398).

The research results prove the hypothesis

It is necessary to admit that the findings depicted by Tobler et al. (2008) provide relevant proof of the hypothesis correctness. These results suggest that the process of decision making consists of several interacting subsystems, whereas the reward system plays a very important role. In fact, the researchers argue that reward system is sometimes decisive since people are often guided not only by their moral principles or calculations but by the experience they gained throughout their lives. It is important to mention that the researchers point out that experience may be based on the behavior of other people. Thus, the question of the role of reward system becomes clear due to logic explanations and appropriate evaluation of findings.

Other experiments can be also held to support the importance of the reward system.

Nevertheless, as the researchers have stated the issue requires further study. For instance, it is possible to implement additional experiments to check the hypothesis. Thus, participants should make decisions concerning monetary reward: investment practice will become a good background. So, the experiment presupposes that people should decide what period of time is acceptable for them to wait for profit. Provided that the chances to get the prize diminish each day, however, the possible amount of money which can be won increases. For example, some people would rather wait for a month and get a $1000, than wait for three months and get $5000 or lose their investment. Some people will prefer the opposite option. The second part of the experiment presupposes that another group of participants (with similar utility function shape, approximately the same age, etc.) should make the same decision but on the basis of some considerable amount of information about previous cases: what sums people won, what timeline was the most beneficial, how many people lost their investment, etc. Thus, the researchers will obtain data revealing whether there is a difference between behavior patterns of people who exploit different decision making systems.

The researchers provide valid evidence

Admittedly, the number of possible experiments and surveys in the field is quite high. However, it is necessary to point out that the research implemented by Tobler et al. (2008) is quite sufficient to make the conclusions revealed by the researchers. The importance of reward system is supported by relevant data. The researchers considered several existing approaches and theories of decision making which was a background for the present survey. They also provided vivid examples illustrating their point of view based on the real life situations, model behaviors, and empirical data. It is necessary to add that apart from depicting various moral issues and concerns, the researchers gave a detailed description of some neurological processes which take place while decision making. In summary, it is possible to assume that the hypothesis addressed by Tobler et al. (2008) is valid and well supported due to the appropriate amount of evidence provided by the researchers.

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Evaluation of the article

To my mind, the article by Tobler et al. (2008) reveals a proper research which addresses an important issue and proves the correctness of the researchers’ hypothesis. Apart from the significant amount of evidence, I would like to point out the way the data and reasoning is presented. The article represents the necessary balance of scientific data and some vivid and easy to understand examples. Thus, to explain the role of experience in decision making the researchers provide several examples: gaining some experience by children, using the obtained experience by adults. Moreover, it is necessary to admit that Tobler et al. (2008) uses catching illustrations. For instance, though the modeling of decision making in the situation with plane hijackers is quite common, the researchers manage to consider it in a consistent and logic way. Furthermore, it is also necessary to mention the example with trolley which is very evocative. I believe that this illustration really can be a good example of certain type of moral decision making situations. As far as the structure of the article is concerned, it can be characterized as logic and clear. The article reveals all the necessary information in a very comprehensive way. Some background information precedes the precise reasoning which helps the reader to follow the researchers.

The research is concise and clear

In conclusion, it is possible to point out that the research by Tobler et al. (2008) testing the role of reward system in decision making draws the valid conclusion that the reward system is an important component in the process. In my opinion, the article represents the main points of the research concisely and clearly.


Engel, C., Singer, W. (2008). Better than Conscious?: Decision Making, the Human Mind, and Implications for Institutions. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.

Tobler, P.N., Kalis, A., Kalenscher, T. (2008). The Role of Moral Utility in Decision Making: An Interdisciplinary Framework. Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, 8(4), 390-401.