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Impulsivity in decision making: investigating the relationship between inhibitory control and rational decision-making in different contexts and modalities

Project Description

Impulsivity plays an important role in healthy behaviour, but it can also be dysfunctional and has been linked to mania, substance abuse, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, pathological gambling, and eating-disorders (e.g., De Wit, 2009; Evenden, 1999; Moller et al., 2001, Verdejo, Lawrence, & Clark, 2008). One key question is precisely how impulsivity contributes to these behaviours, and to decision-making more widely.

There is some evidence to suggest an overlap between the mechanisms involved in inhibitory control and decision-making. Verbruggen, Adams and Chambers (2012) have shown that training healthy people to exercise motor cautiousness by inhibiting prepotent responses in a stop signal task (SST) can generalise to increased cautiousness on a gambling-style task (see also Stevens et al., 2015). Recent evidence suggests that this transfer of cautiousness can extend beyond the laboratory to affect change to real-world behaviours such as over-eating (Lawrence et al., 2015).

This project will investigate the relationship between inhibitory control and rational decision-making in different contexts and modalities. In particular, we will examine the extent to which the effects of priming (or depleting) inhibitory control generalise to modulate different kinds of decision-making behaviour. A range of decision-making paradigms are available which are formally equivalent to the gambling-style tasks used by Verbruggen et al. but involve very different types of processing, e.g., purely perceptual decisions (Warren, Graf, Maloney, & Champion, 2012), perceptuo-motor decisions (Trommershäuser, Maloney & Landy, 2008) and higher level cognitive decisions (Jarvstad, Hahn, Warren, & Rushton, 2013).

This project has the potential to reveal deep insight into impulsivity and decision making in a range of contexts. Furthermore, establishing a generalised effect of inhibitory control on decision making across tasks would be a powerful result with potential to inform design of optimised training schedules to bring about behaviour change across contexts.

The successful applicant will be trained in a wide range of research skills including experiment design and programming (e.g. Matlab, Presentation, Python), psychophysical methods, eye-tracking (Eyelink 1000), and advanced data analysis (e.g., Matlab and R). There are also regular opportunities to become involved in other activities such as teaching and public engagement events

Funding Notes

Candidates are expected to hold (or be about to obtain) a minimum upper second class honours degree (or equivalent) in a related area / subject such as Psychology, Cognitive Neuroscience, or Neuroscience. Candidates with a relevant Master’s degree, research experience, or programming skills are particularly encouraged to apply.

This project has a Band 1 fee. Details of our different fee bands can be found on our website (View Website). For information on how to apply for this project, please visit the Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health Doctoral Academy website (View Website).

Informal enquiries may be made directly to the primary supervisor.


Jarvstad, A., Hahn, U., Rushton, S. K., & Warren, P. A. (2013). Perceptuo-motor, cognitive, and description-based decision-making seem equally good. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(40), 16271-16276.

McBride, J., Boy, F., Husain, M., & Sumner, P. (2012). Automatic motor activation in the executive control of action. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6.

Verbruggen, F. Adams, R., & Chambers, C. D. (2012). Proactive motor control reduces monetary risk taking in gambling. Psychological Science, 23(7), 805-815.

Warren, P. A., Graf, E. W., Maloney, L. T. & Champion, R. (2012). Visual extrapolation under risk: Human observers estimate and compensate for exogenous uncertainty. Proceedings B: Biological Sciences, 279(1736), 2171.

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