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Neural mechanisms of effort-based decision making

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  • Full or part time
    Dr A Stancak
    Dr T Pantelous
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description


This is a project within the multi-disciplinary EPSRC and ESRC Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) on Quantification and Management of Risk & Uncertainty in Complex Systems & Environments, within the Institute for Risk and Uncertainty. The studentship is granted for 4 years and includes, in the first year, a Master in Decision Making under Risk & Uncertainty. The project includes extensive collaboration with prime industry to build an optimal basis for employability.

Objectives - Human decision making affect a variety of behaviours ranging from simple actions to decisions with wide-ranging economic, ecological, or safety impacts. Previous studies in the area of behavioural economics and neuroeconomics have focused on values and risks associated with individual decision prospects. Effort involved in realisation of a chosen behavioural pattern is an important component of everyday decisions, and has implications for environment and well-being. For instance, evaluation and reduction of effort associated with home cleaning and laundry in countries with shortage of water may result in substantial environmental and health benefits.

The neural mechanisms underlying effort-based decision making and how they affect real-life behaviour and decisions are poorly understood. Previous studies indicate that evaluation of cognitive and physical effort in a decision making task is mediated by brain regions encoding subjective values and other regions such as anterior cingulate cortex or nucleus accumbens. The general objective of this project is to shed light on the neural mechanisms involved in the processing of effort in the framework of behavioural economics and neuroeconomics with emphasis on effort associated with everyday chores and tasks (e.g., cleaning and household care). The experimental part of this PhD project will comprise decision making tasks, such as cognitive effect discounting, in behavioural, and electroencephalographic and functional magnetic resonance imaging recordings in healthy human participants. Mathematical modelling of choices will be applied to quantify decision making parameters including effort, which in turn will be correlated with brain activation measures.

Impact - Understanding the neural mechanisms of cognitive and physical effort is an important but poorly understood aspect of decision making. We believe that effort should be added to other aspects of decision making such as values, risk, and reward delay. In addition to the theoretical impact of the proposed project, results will be translated into procedures and recommendations to measure effort in the context of everyday tasks, such as cleaning and household care. The project will be carried out in collaboration with Unilever. Unilever is one of the world’s leading suppliers of fast-moving consumer goods and has a strong research base in the UK. Unilever’s primary strategic goal is to make sustainable living commonplace. Part of this ambition is to help over 1 billion people to improve their health and wellbeing through universal access to safe drinking water, sanitation and hygiene, while reducing the impact environmental impact associated with product use. Reducing effort is one of key elements in achieving these goals. Unilever will be hosting the PhD student during placements of up to 6 months in total at one of its laboratories and will provide the necessary support and training in an industrial environment including transferable skills.

Funding Notes

The PhD Studentship (Tuition fees + stipend of £ 13,726 annually over 4 years) is available for Home/EU students. In addition, a budget for use in own responsibility will be provided.

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