Brain and Decision
Psych 232 (3 units)
T 3:00-5:50 PM
Rm. 419, Bldg. 420
Prerequisites: Background in neuroscience, psychology, or economics, and instructor consent.


Brian Knutson, PhD
Psychology & Neuroscience
Bldg 420, Room 470
Email: knutson'at'
Office Hours: W 2:00-3:30 PM
Yuan Chang (YC) Leong
Bldg 420, Room 181
Email: ycleong'at'
Office Hours: By appointment


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. (optional, specialist, 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
    04/02/19 Introduction & Definitions Fox / Glimcher et al
    04/09/19 Neuroscience / Psychology / Economics Schultz et al / Loewenstein et al / Bernheim
    04/16/19 Learning (Leong) Palminteri & Pessiglione | O'Doherty et al / Sharot et al
    04/23/19 Expected Value (Magnitude / Probability) Haber & Knutson | Knutson et al / Ploghaus et al
    04/30/19 Risk / Ambiguity Knutson & Huettel | Kuhnen & Knutson + sup / Preuschoff et al / Hsu et al
    05/07/19 Time Peters & Buchel | McClure et al + sup / Kable & Glimcher + sup / Hare et al
    05/14/19 Choice Ariely & Berns | Knutson et al + sup / Tusche et al / Berns & Moore
    05/21/19 Interaction Sanfey | Rilling et al / Sanfey et al / Park et al
    05/28/19 Future / Presentations Zalocusky et al / Scholz et al / Smith et al
    06/04/19 Presentations / Wrap



    Notes (30) / Critique (10) 40%
    Outline (10) / Proposal (30) 40%
    Attendance (10) / Attention (10) 20%

  • Notes / Critique: In Classes 3-8, students will 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 allowed (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 experiments, what was the prediction, independent variable, dependent variable, and conclusion?
    2. Did the findings justify the conclusion? Why or why not?
    3. What is one way you might improve or extend the work?
    4. *For reviews*: what are three key points you came away with?

    After the third class, you should submit a one-page critique of a current news article about a finding related to the brain and decision making. The goal of this exercise is to develop the ability to evaluate popular accounts of science. Submit the critique electronically by midnight on 04/21/19. The critique should address:

    1. What did the article say the study manipulated, found, and concluded?
    2. What did the study actually manipulate, find, and conclude? (i.e., primary source)
    3. How did the accounts match and how did they not? If not, why?
    4. How well do the accounts of brain function cohere with an automated meta-analytic interpretation (i.e., derived from neurosynth)?

  • Outline / Proposal: Students will develop a concise proposal to conduct an experiment relevant to the neuroscience basis of decision-making (ideally, this will relate to some experiment that the student might eventually conduct). This assignment is designed to help students work through innovating and designing fundable interdisciplinary research. Proposals will follow a basic scientific report format (details here). Students should first electronically submit an outline of the proposal by midnight on 05/12/19 for early feedback (bullet point or text is ok). During the final classes, each student will briefly present their proposal to the class in powerpoint format (7 min) and receive additional feedback (2 min; presentation order randomly determined). Final papers are due electronically at midnight on 06/05/19.

  • 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.

  • Guidelines: Plagiarism is considered academic theft and can result in a failing grade. Don't use laptops or devices in class, as they have been demonstrated to impair students' learning (unless explicitly called for in exercises).

  • (last update: 03/28/19)