What is cognitive neuroscience?

Accounts of decision-making have stimulated debate and research for centuries, spanning across a variety of disciplines including psychology, economics, law, philosophy, sociology, politics, and more recently neuroscience, computer science and artificial intelligence.

Even seemingly simple decisions, such as deciding whether a person in the street is a stranger or an acquaintance, require our brains to conduct complex computations that draw on an enormous amount of information. Despite this complexity, humans and other animals are often able to make choices with astounding speed and efficacy, often in spite of imperfect or incomplete information.

On the other hand, in certain circumstances, we are prone to irrational or harmful choices. We prefer products that are “95% fat-free” to those that are “5% fat”. Rare threats such as shark attacks or terrorist violence provoke greater fear than far more prevalent threats such as heart disease or traffic accidents. We tend to pursue small short-term gains that lead to large long-term harms, such as excessive gambling, drinking or shopping. Emotional states like anger or stress may influence how we make unrelated decisions about what we eat, or the speed at which we are driving.

The Decision Science Hub is an initiative supported by the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences that provides an interdisciplinary platform for studying decision-making. We engage with partners from across different disciplines at the University of Melbourne, research institutes, government, the healthcare sector and industry.

Our research aims to answer fundamental and scientific questions about how our minds and brains solve decision problems, the circumstances in which we are prone to certain biases, or how we process basic perceptual information necessary to make decisions. In addition to pursuing the fundamental science of decision-making, our research investigates the decisions we make in our day to day lives. Many of the major chronic health challenges that Australia will face in the next 25 years, including mental health, obesity, addiction, cardiovascular health and cancer, involve a lifetime of implicit and explicit decisions. The same is true for the important personal life challenges, such as saving for retirement, buying a house, balancing career and family, or pursuing an education. Decision-making is also at the core of engaging with technology, for example, driving cars or flying planes, and at all levels of the institutions that are the major building blocks of our society – politic, markets, or the military. This understanding of decision-making at both a fundamental level and in applied settings will enable intervention strategies and innovations that deliver significant community benefits.