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Neural precursors of decisions that matter—an ERP study of deliberate and arbitrary choice

Maoz, Uri and Yaffe, Gideon and Koch, Christof and Mudrik, Liad (2019) Neural precursors of decisions that matter—an ERP study of deliberate and arbitrary choice. eLife, 8 . Art. No. e39787. ISSN 2050-084X. PMCID PMC6809608.

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The readiness potential (RP)—a key ERP correlate of upcoming action—is known to precede subjects' reports of their decision to move. Some view this as evidence against a causal role for consciousness in human decision-making and thus against free-will. But previous work focused on arbitrary decisions—purposeless, unreasoned, and without consequences. It remains unknown to what degree the RP generalizes to deliberate, more ecological decisions. We directly compared deliberate and arbitrary decision-making during a $1000-donation task to non-profit organizations. While we found the expected RPs for arbitrary decisions, they were strikingly absent for deliberate ones. Our results and drift-diffusion model are congruent with the RP representing accumulation of noisy, random fluctuations that drive arbitrary—but not deliberate—decisions. They further point to different neural mechanisms underlying deliberate and arbitrary decisions, challenging the generalizability of studies that argue for no causal role for consciousness in decision-making to real-life decisions.

Item Type:Article
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URLURL TypeDescription Paper CentralArticle
Maoz, Uri0000-0002-7899-1241
Koch, Christof0000-0001-6482-8067
Mudrik, Liad0000-0003-3564-6445
Alternate Title:Neural precursors of deliberate and arbitrary decisions in the study of voluntary action
Additional Information:© 2019 Maoz et al. This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use and redistribution provided that the original author and source are credited. Received: July 3, 2018; Accepted: October 3, 2019; Version of Record published: October 23, 2019 (version 1). The experiments reported in this paper were carried out at the Caltech Brain Imaging Center. We thank Ralph Adolphs for his invaluable guidance and support in designing and running the experiment as well as for very useful discussions of the results. We thank Ram Rivlin for various conceptual discussions about deliberate versus arbitrary decision-making and about the initial experimental paradigm design. We thank Caitlin Duncan for her help in patiently and meticulously gathering the EEG data. We thank Daw-An Wu for discussions about EEG data collection and preprocessing and for his help with actual data collection. We thank Daniel Grossman for his help in carefully preprocessing the data and suggesting potential interpretations of it. We thank Aaron Schurger and Ueli Rutishauser for various discussions about the model and its simulations. We thank Shlomit Yuval-Greenberg and Leon Deouell for important discussions about EEG processing and analysis. Last, we thank the anonymous reviewers for their invaluable comments, which greatly improved this manuscript. Author contributions: Uri Maoz, Liad Mudrik, Conceptualization, Data curation, Software, Formal analysis, Funding acquisition, Investigation, Visualization, Methodology, Writing—original draft, Writing—review and editing; Gideon Yaffe, Conceptualization, Funding acquisition, Methodology, Writing—review and editing; Christof Koch, Conceptualization, Supervision, Methodology, Writing—review and editing. Ethics: Human subjects: The experiment was approved by Caltech’s Institutional Review Board (14-0432; Neural markers of deliberate and random decisions), and informed consent was obtained from all participants after the experimental procedures were explained to them. Data availability: The EEG data recorded for this project as well as the behavioral data and a file explaining how to read the behavioral data have been deposited with the Open Science Framework at Funding: John Templeton Foundation (BQFW initiative to FSU). Ralph Schlaeger Charitable Foundation. Bial Foundation (388/14). German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and Development (I-2426-421.13/2016). John Templeton Foundation (Consciousness and Free Will: A Joint Neuroscientific-Philosophical Investigation). Fetzer Institute (Consciousness and Free Will: A Joint Neuroscientific-Philosophical Investigation). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and interpretation, or the decision to submit the work for publication.
Group:Koch Laboratory (KLAB)
Funding AgencyGrant Number
John Templeton FoundationUNSPECIFIED
Ralph Schlaeger Charitable FoundationUNSPECIFIED
Bial Foundation388/14
German-Israeli Foundation for Scientific Research and DevelopmentI-2426-421.13/2016
Fetzer InstituteUNSPECIFIED
PubMed Central ID:PMC6809608
Record Number:CaltechAUTHORS:20181026-150202535
Persistent URL:
Official Citation:Maoz et al. eLife 2019;8:e39787. DOI:
Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:90441
Deposited By: Tony Diaz
Deposited On:26 Oct 2018 22:28
Last Modified:05 Mar 2020 00:10

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