Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Conceptual Representations in Goal-Directed Decision Making

Academic journal article Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience

Conceptual Representations in Goal-Directed Decision Making

Article excerpt

Emerging evidence suggests that the long-established distinction between habit-based and goal-directed decision-making mechanisms can also be sustained in humans. Although the habit-based system has been extensively studied in humans, the goal-directed system is less well characterized. This review brings to that task the distinction between conceptual and nonconceptual representational mechanisms. Conceptual representations are structured out of semantic constituents (concepts)-the use of which requires an ability to perform some language-like syntactic processing. Decision making-as investigated by neuroscience and psychology-is normally studied in isolation from questions about concepts as studied in philosophy and cognitive psychology. We ask what role concepts play in the "goal-directed" decision-making system. We argue that one fruitful way of studying this system in humans is to investigate the extent to which it deploys conceptual representations.

1. Introduction

Many animals have at least two systems for producing instrumental behavior: the habit system and the goaldirected system (Dickinson & Balleine, 2002). These multiple action and learning systems are the scope of modern learning theory (Balleine & Dickinson, 1998a), which goes beyond previous models (Dickinson 1980). There is growing evidence that the systems responsible for human instrumental behavior and decision making divide along similar lines (Gottfried, O'Doherty, & Dolan, 2003; Valentin, Dickinson, & O'Doherty, 2007). However, it is often found that in many domains, human psychology is more sophisticated than that of other animals. This may also be true of the mechanisms of decision making. In particular, the human capacity for parsing and producing the complex syntactic structures of language may well have an impact on how we formulate plans and decide between available options. More specifically, language mechanisms allow humans to have and think with concepts. This is not to say that something like human language is necessary for concept possession but, rather, that thinking with internal representations that mirror the constituent structure of natural language is sufficient for concept possession. The term concept is used for a variety of phenomena. Some authors use it for the capacity to respond in the same way to a variety of different stimuli-an ability that, as we use the term, could be mediated by a nonconceptual representation. Nor is the capacity to make inferences sufficient for concept possession, because inferences may be made by making transitions in thought between nonconceptual representations. By concept, we mean a constituent of a mental representation: In order to possess concepts, a thinker must have internal representations with a semantically constituent structure-for example, the familiar subject-predicate structure with which some individual is picked out and some property predicated of that individual. (For more detail, see Section 3 below.) The commonsensical idea that people often reason with concepts has been vindicated and refined by a long tradition of work in both cognitive psychology (Murphy, 2004) and philosophy (Evans, 1982; Millikan, 2000; Peacocke, 1992). This review applies some of those insights, asking what role concepts have in generating goaldirected human behavior.

The article is structured as follows. We start in Section 2 by characterizing the difference between the habitbased decision-making system and the goal-directed decision-making system. In Section 3, we introduce the distinction between conceptual and nonconceptual representations, as clarified by work in philosophy. In Section 4, we ask whether the goal-directed decision-making system in nonhuman animals makes use of conceptual representations. Finally, in Section 5, we suggest how that particular question can be addressed in humans, arguing that there is preliminary evidence that the operation of the dedicated decision-making system in humans that is undergohomologous to the goal-directed system studied in other animals does-in humans at least-make use of conceptual representations. …

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