Goal-oriented rewards as key factors in decision-making

July 23, 2023

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Goal-oriented rewards as key factors in decision-making

New research is shifting the understanding of human decision-making processes by highlighting the importance of goal-oriented rewards. The new study suggests that the value people attribute to outcomes is subjective, and heavily influenced by their personal goals and the context of the decision.

What the researchers say: "Value isn't just determined by an objective reward or outcome,” said the study’s lead author. “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.”

For example, you might order a chocolate ice cream cone and be perfectly satisfied with your choice. But if you then find out that there's another flavor available, you might feel less satisfied with your initial selection. In this case, the objective value of the ice cream cone hasn't changed. What's changed is your subjective perception of its value relative to the newfound best option, thus highlighting the impact of goal achievement on decision-making.

Using data collected from over 1,000 individuals by various laboratories, the research team has confirmed this theory by developing an "intrinsically enhanced" reinforcement learning model. While other theories propose that subjective value is simply adjusted based on different observed alternatives, the model developed by these researchers offers a new perspective: it centers around the concept that achieving a goal is crucial. The intrinsically enhanced model is not the first to examine this phenomenon, but it does provide a new way to understand the problem.

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

According to the researchers, the potential applications of this research are vast and varied. This new understanding could, they say, inform public policies encouraging positive behavior changes or help shape financial decisions. In an educational setting, it could be utilized to show students how learning specific topics can assist in achieving their particular goals. The research could also inform therapeutic strategies for patients suffering from mental illness or eating disorders.

This research could inspire innovation in the field of the development of artificial intelligence. "As it stands, an AI model cares primarily about extrinsic rewards,” Collins said. “Our research suggests that integrating intrinsic, goal-oriented rewards could substantially enhance these models.”

So, what? This research confirms a mountain of prior research that shows that decisions are not made on the basis of facts but rather on emotion. The “intrinsic goals” that a person has are always emotionally based—they tell us and others what kind of person we are or want to become. They will change as our sense of self changes. A decision is therefore an affirmation of our beliefs about ourselves, our assumptions about the world and our sense of self-worth.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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