Brain and Decision
Psych 232 (3 units)
T 3:00-5:50 PM
Online (
Prerequisites: Background in neuroscience, psychology, or economics + instructor consent.


Brian Knutson, PhD
Psychology & Neuroscience
Bldg 420, Room 476
Email: knutson'at'
Office Hours: W 2:00-3:30 PM (


This seminar explores how emerging findings at the interface of neuroscience, psychology, and economics combine to inform our understanding of how the brain makes decisions. Topics include neural processes related to reward, punishment, probability, risk, time, reflection, and social interaction, as well as theoretical implications and practical applications. We will briefly touch on the possibility of extending individual brain and behavioral data down to physiological and up to aggregate levels of analysis.

Because the course involves interdisciplinary material, it takes the format of a research seminar with background discussions, and is targeted at graduate students and advanced undergraduates who aim to conduct related research. Goals include: (1) building familiarity with relevant neuroscience, psychology, and economics concepts; (2) increasing awareness of key relevant literature; and (3) preparation to conduct and advance innovative interdisciplinary research.

Text (optional):

Glimcher PW, Camerer C, Poldrack RA, Fehr E (2009). Neuroeconomics: Decision making and the brain. New York: Academic Press. (for a deeper dive -- optional, specialist, and free!)


  • Classes 1-2 will provide minimal background in neuroscience, psychology, and economics in the form of lectures and discussions.
  • Classes 3-8 include thematic reviews followed by discussion of relevant research findings.
  • Classes 9-10 focus on students' research presentations and proposed projects.
  • Date Theme Readings
    04/04/23 Introduction & Definitions Fox / Glimcher et al
    04/11/23 Neuroscience / Psychology / Economics Schultz et al / Kahneman & Tversky / Loewenstein et al / Bernheim
    04/18/23 Expected Value (Magnitude & Probability) / Learning Haber & Knutson | Palminteri et al | Knutson et al / O'Doherty et al
    04/25/23 Risk / Ambiguity Knutson & Huettel | Kuhnen & Knutson + sup / Preuschoff et al / Hsu et al
    05/02/23 Time / Control Peters & Buchel | McClure et al + sup / Kable & Glimcher + sup / Hare et al
    05/09/23 Choice Ariely & Berns | Knutson et al + sup / Tusche et al
    05/16/23 Interaction Sanfey | Rilling et al / Sanfey et al / Park et al
    05/23/23 Forecasting Knutson & Genevsky / Venkatraman et al / Tong et al
    05/30/23 Future / Presentations Zalocusky et al / Scholz et al / Stallen et al
    06/06/23 Presentations / Wrap



    Notes (35) / Critique (10) 45%
    Outline (5) / Presentation (5) / Proposal (25) 35%
    Attendance (10) / Attention (10) 20%

  • Notes / Critique: In Classes 2-7, students should prepare a half-page summary and one question raised by each of the assigned papers ("Notes"). Summaries and questions are due electronically midnight the Sunday before each class, with no extensions (but see the grading policy below). The goals of these assignments are to stimulate critical thinking about relevant research and to ensure active participation in class discussions.

    Summaries should address the following points:
    1. For reviews: what were at least three key points of the review, are there any you questioned, and why?
    2. For experiments, what was the independent variable, dependent variable, prediction, and conclusion? Did the findings justify the conclusion and why or why not? What is one way you might improve or extend the work?

    You and your partner should submit a one-page critique of a current news article or podcast describing a finding on how neural activity is related to choice. The goal of this exercise is to develop the ability to evaluate popular accounts of decision neuroscience. The critique should address:

    1. What link did the article or podcast make between brain function and choice?
    2. What did the peer-reviewed article they cited actually show about the association between brain function and choice, and how was that different from the claim?
    3. If there was a discrepancy between the two, why do you think they differed?

  • Outline / Presentation / Proposal: This assignment involves developing a concise proposal to conduct an experiment relevant to decision neuroscience(ideally, this will relate to some experiment that you might eventually conduct). The goal of this assignment is to learn how to innovate and design fundable interdisciplinary research Proposals will follow a basic scientific report format (details here). Students should first electronically submit an outline of the proposal for early feedback (one page, bullet point ok). During the last classes, each student will briefly present their proposal to the class in powerpoint format (5 min) and receive additional feedback (2 min; presentation order randomly determined). Final proposals should be in a brief ~5 page format, and should include a title page, introduction, methods, results (projected), discussion, and references..

  • Attendance / Attention: Valid reasons for absence include: (1) arrangements made in advance with the instructor to participate in a Stanford sanctioned activity (e.g., athletic competition), (2) a medical condition that requires the treatment of a physician, or (3) the death of a close family member. "Attention" is essentially psychological participation. Don't use devices in class, as research indicates that they impair learning and decrase grades (unless explicitly required for exercises).

  • Guidelines: Plagiarism and "AI"giarism are considered academic theft -- they cheat the creator, the instructor, and the student. I can and will identify them, which can result in a failing grade.

  • (last update: 04/10/23)