Information processing in decision-making systems

Matthijs Van Der Meer, Zeb Kurth-Nelson, A. David Redish

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

125 Scopus citations


Decisions result from an interaction between multiple functional systems acting in parallel to process information in very different ways, each with strengths and weaknesses. In this review, the authors address three action-selection components of decision-making: The Pavlovian system releases an action from a limited repertoire of potential actions, such as approaching learned stimuli. Like the Pavlovian system, the habit system is computationally fast but, unlike the Pavlovian system permits arbitrary stimulus-action pairings. These associations are a "forward'' mechanism; when a situation is recognized, the action is released. In contrast, the deliberative system is flexible but takes time to process. The deliberative system uses knowledge of the causal structure of the world to search into the future, planning actions to maximize expected rewards. Deliberation depends on the ability to imagine future possibilities, including novel situations, and it allows decisions to be taken without having previously experienced the options. Various anatomical structures have been identified that carry out the information processing of each of these systems: hippocampus constitutes a map of the world that can be used for searching/imagining the future; dorsal striatal neurons represent situation-action associations; and ventral striatum maintains value representations for all three systems. Each system presents vulnerabilities to pathologies that can manifest as psychiatric disorders. Understanding these systems and their relation to neuroanatomy opens up a deeper way to treat the structural problems underlying various disorders.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)342-359
Number of pages18
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2012

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: This work was supported by NIH research grants MH080318 and DA024080 (ADR, ZKN) and by the Canada Research Chairs Program through the National Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC, Tier II), VENI award 863.10.013 from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) and the University of Waterloo (MvdM).


  • decision making
  • dorsal striatum
  • hippocampus
  • rat
  • ventral striatum


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