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PLoS Biol. 2004 Oct;2(10):e330. Epub 2004 Sep 21.

A neuroeconomics approach to inferring utility functions in sensorimotor control.

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Sobell Department of Motor Neuroscience, Institute of Neurology, University College London, London, United Kingdom.


Making choices is a fundamental aspect of human life. For over a century experimental economists have characterized the decisions people make based on the concept of a utility function. This function increases with increasing desirability of the outcome, and people are assumed to make decisions so as to maximize utility. When utility depends on several variables, indifference curves arise that represent outcomes with identical utility that are therefore equally desirable. Whereas in economics utility is studied in terms of goods and services, the sensorimotor system may also have utility functions defining the desirability of various outcomes. Here, we investigate the indifference curves when subjects experience forces of varying magnitude and duration. Using a two-alternative forced-choice paradigm, in which subjects chose between different magnitude-duration profiles, we inferred the indifference curves and the utility function. Such a utility function defines, for example, whether subjects prefer to lift a 4-kg weight for 30 s or a 1-kg weight for a minute. The measured utility function depends nonlinearly on the force magnitude and duration and was remarkably conserved across subjects. This suggests that the utility function, a central concept in economics, may be applicable to the study of sensorimotor control.

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