Past Event

Difficult Decisions: The Complexities of Choice in the Real World

December 14, 2015
4:00 PM - 6:00 PM
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Buell Hall, Columbia University, 515 West 116th Street, New York


  • Alessandra Casella, PhD, Professor of Economics, Columbia University
  • L. A. Paul, PhD, Professor of Philosophy, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Michael Platt, PhD, James S. Riepe University Professor in the Departments of Psychology, Neuroscience and Marketing, University of Pennsylvania

Moderator: David Barack, PhD, Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience, Columbia University

In the Odyssey, Agamemnon faces the classic tragic choice: he must decide whether or not to sacrifice his daughter to the goddess Artemis so that she will rekindle the wind for the Greek warships to sail to Troy. With the sacrifice, he loses his daughter; without it, he loses command.

The real world is full of difficult decisions like Agamemnon’s, albeit rarely to the same degree. These include decisions that act against our self-interests (so-called ‘akratic actions’) or primarily benefit others (altruistic actions), decisions motivated by factors besides reward (such as for information or prestige), and decisions that hold only the possibility of an uncertain reward in the uncertain future (such as deciding to invest in an education). These decision contexts often lack a best course. Despite these complexities, immediate rewards and optimal analyses remain the central focus of research on decision-making in economics, psychology, and neuroscience. These fields typically rely on subjects earning the most money, points, or treats to investigate the neural and computational mechanisms of decision-making.

Can the computational processes involved in real-life decisions be described using these basic models of motivation and reward, or must we develop a new set of tools? Is it possible to circumvent the optimal perspective of decision-making, or can we only make sense of the best decisions? Can an analysis of decision-making reflect the intuitively diverse reasons for which people act, or must all decisions, ultimately, invoke some reward ― if not now, then in the future, and if not in our future, then for our legacy or our community? In this seminar, our panelists will discuss these difficult decisions that shape our lives and our world.

This event is free and open to the public. 

This event is part of the Presidential Scholars in Society and Neuroscience, Seminars in Society and Neuroscience series.