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Study: Brain battles itself over short-term rewards, long-term goals

You walk into a room and spy a plate of doughnuts dripping with chocolate frosting. But wait: You were saving your sweets allotment for a party later today. If it feels like one part of your brain is battling another, it probably is, according to a newly published study.

Researchers at four universities found two areas of the brain that appear to compete for control over behavior when a person attempts to balance near-term rewards with long-term goals. The research involved imaging people's brains as they made choices between small but immediate rewards or larger awards that they would receive later. The study grew out of the emerging discipline of neuroeconomics, which investigates the mental and neural processes that drive economic decision-making.

The study was a collaboration between Jonathan Cohen and Samuel McClure at Princeton's Center for the Study of Brain Mind and Behavior; David Laibson, professor of economics at Harvard University; and George Loewenstein, professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University. Their study appears in the Oct. 15 issue of Science.

"This is part of a series of studies we've done that illustrate that we are rarely of one mind," said Cohen, also a faculty member at the University of Pittsburgh. "We have different neural systems that evolved to solve different types of problems, and our behavior is dictated by the competition or cooperation between them."

The researchers examined a much-studied economic dilemma in which consumers behave impatiently today but prefer/plan to act patiently in the future. For example, people who are offered the choice of $10 today or $11 tomorrow are likely choose to receive the lesser amount immediately. But if given a choice between $10 in one year or $11 in a year and a day, people often choose the higher, delayed amount.

In classic economic theory, this choice is irrational because people are inconsistent in their treatment of th
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Contact: Steven Schultz
sschultz@princeton.edu
609-258-5729
Princeton University
14-Oct-2004


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