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Prog Brain Res. 2013;202:215-37. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-62604-2.00013-7.

Contextual and social influences on valuation and choice.

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Department of Economics, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland.


To survive in our complex environment, we have to adapt to changing contexts. Prior research that investigated how contextual changes are processed in the human brain has demonstrated important modulatory influences on multiple cognitive processes underlying decision-making, including perceptual judgments, working memory, as well as cognitive and attentional control. However, in everyday life, the importance of context is even more obvious during economic and social interactions, which often have implicit rule sets that need to be recognized by a decision-maker. Here, we review recent evidence from an increasing number of studies in the fields of Neuroeconomics and Social Neuroscience that investigate the neurobiological basis of contextual effects on valuation and social choice. Contrary to the assumptions of rational choice theory, multiple contextual factors, such as the availability of alternative choice options, shifts in reference point, and social context, have been shown to modulate behavior, as well as signals in task-relevant neural networks. A consistent picture that emerges from neurobiological results is that valuation-related activity in striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex is highly context dependent during both social and nonsocial choice. Alternative approaches to model and explain choice behavior, such as comparison-based choice models, as well as implications for future research are discussed.

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