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PLoS Comput Biol. 2015 May 29;11(5):e1004301. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004301. eCollection 2015 May.

Maintaining homeostasis by decision-making.

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Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy, and Psychosomatics, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland.
Department of Psychiatry, Psychotherapy, and Psychosomatics, University of Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland; Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging, University College London, London, United Kingdom.


Living organisms need to maintain energetic homeostasis. For many species, this implies taking actions with delayed consequences. For example, humans may have to decide between foraging for high-calorie but hard-to-get, and low-calorie but easy-to-get food, under threat of starvation. Homeostatic principles prescribe decisions that maximize the probability of sustaining appropriate energy levels across the entire foraging trajectory. Here, predictions from biological principles contrast with predictions from economic decision-making models based on maximizing the utility of the endpoint outcome of a choice. To empirically arbitrate between the predictions of biological and economic models for individual human decision-making, we devised a virtual foraging task in which players chose repeatedly between two foraging environments, lost energy by the passage of time, and gained energy probabilistically according to the statistics of the environment they chose. Reaching zero energy was framed as starvation. We used the mathematics of random walks to derive endpoint outcome distributions of the choices. This also furnished equivalent lotteries, presented in a purely economic, casino-like frame, in which starvation corresponded to winning nothing. Bayesian model comparison showed that--in both the foraging and the casino frames--participants' choices depended jointly on the probability of starvation and the expected endpoint value of the outcome, but could not be explained by economic models based on combinations of statistical moments or on rank-dependent utility. This implies that under precisely defined constraints biological principles are better suited to explain human decision-making than economic models based on endpoint utility maximization.

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