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Published May 28, 2008 | Published
Journal Article Open

The Neural Mechanisms Underlying the Influence of Pavlovian Cues on Human Decision Making


In outcome-specific transfer, pavlovian cues that are predictive of specific outcomes bias action choice toward actions associated with those outcomes. This transfer occurs despite no explicit training of the instrumental actions in the presence of pavlovian cues. The neural substrates of this effect in humans are unknown. To address this, we scanned 23 human subjects with functional magnetic resonance imaging while they made choices between different liquid food rewards in the presence of pavlovian cues previously associated with one of these outcomes. We found behavioral evidence of outcome-specific transfer effects in our subjects, as well as differential blood oxygenation level-dependent activity in a region of ventrolateral putamen when subjects chose, respectively, actions consistent and inconsistent with the pavlovian-predicted outcome. Our results suggest that choosing an action incompatible with a pavlovian-predicted outcome might require the inhibition of feasible but nonselected action– outcome associations. The results of this study are relevant for understanding how marketing actions can affect consumer choice behavior as well as for how environmental cues can influence drug-seeking behavior in addiction.

Additional Information

© 2008 Society for Neuroscience. Received Feb. 28, 2008; revised April 17, 2008; accepted May 5, 2008. This work was supported by a Searle scholarship and grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF061714) (J.O.D.), the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (J.O.D., A.R.), and the Caltech Brain Imaging Center and the Japan Science and Technology Agency (ERATO) (S.S.). We are grateful to Vivian Valentin for assistance and to Hackjin Kim, Sam Huang, and Shawn Wagner for developing the coil we used to detect swallowing movement.

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