The psychology department at UC Berkeley is doing research to better understand the influence of goal-oriented incentives on human decision-making. Over 1,000 individuals’ data was collected for the study, which was led by Professor Anne Collins and doctoral student Gaia Molinaro.

“Value isn’t just determined by an objective reward or outcome,” Collins explains. “Our research suggests that people’s perception of value is largely shaped by their personal goals and the context in which the decision is made.”  

The experts use icecream as an example: You could be quite content to choose a vanilla ice cream cone, but if you later learn that your preferred flavor was also available and you missed it, your first choice can feel less fulfilling. The ice cream cone in this instance still has the same objective worth. What has changed is your subjective appraisal of its worth in comparison to the newly discovered ideal flavor, illustrating the influence of goal attainment on decision-making. In this scenario, the goal is getting the best tasting ice cream, of course.

“Our study proposes a paradigm shift in how we understand decision-making,” Molinaro optimistically notes,”It shows the critical importance of considering goal-dependent rewards, which may significantly alter our understanding of decision-making processes.”

The experts at Berkeley believe that their research could influence financial choices or governmental initiatives that promote beneficial behavioral changes. Or, it might be used in a classroom to demonstrate to students how mastering certain subjects can help them achieve their goals. Potentially, it could influence treatment plans for people with eating problems or mental illnesses. This discovery has a wide range of possible applications, however further study is necessary before these applications can be properly understood and applied. The Berkeley team intends to carry out further research in this crucial region of cognitive neuroscience.

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Journal Reference:

  1. Gaia Molinaro, Anne G. E. Collins. Intrinsic rewards explain context-sensitive valuation in reinforcement learning. PLOS Biology, 2023; 21 (7): e3002201 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3002201
  2. University of California – Berkeley. “Study reveals goal-oriented rewards as key factors in decision-making.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 July 2023. <>.