Utility-free heuristic models of two-option choice can mimic predictions of utility-stage models under many conditions

Steven T. Piantadosi, Benjamin Y. Hayden

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

2 Scopus citations


Economists often model choices as if decision-makers assign each option a scalar value variable, known as utility, and then select the option with the highest utility. It remains unclear whether as-if utility models describe real mental and neural steps in choice. Although choices alone cannot prove the existence of a utility stage, utility transformations are often taken to provide the most parsimonious or psychologically plausible explanation for choice data. Here, we show that it is possible to mathematically transform a large set of common utility-stage two-option choice models (specifically ones in which dimensions are can be decomposed into additive functions) into a heuristic model (specifically, a dimensional prioritization heuristic) that has no utility computation stage. We then show that under a range of plausible assumptions, both classes of model predict similar neural responses. These results highlight the difficulties in using neuroeconomic data to infer the existence of a value stage in choice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number105
JournalFrontiers in Neuroscience
Issue numberAPR
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015



  • Decision making
  • Dimensional prioritization
  • Heuristics
  • Utility
  • Value comparison
  • Value correlate

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