Conte Center Poised for Next Chapter in Decision-Making Research

After five years of investigating the basic mechanisms of human decision-making, the Caltech Conte Center will tackle a more complex topic: How do social settings affect the way we make decisions?

With five years of exploring human decision-making under its belt, the Conte Center for Neuroscience at Caltech is ready for its next chapter.

The center began in 2011 with a $9 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and a charge of shining light on the neurobiology that underlies how humans make decisions in social settings. The research has broad applications in public health because many mental illnesses are rooted in disordered decision-making processes.

Some of the research conducted at the center thus far has included investigating the regions of the brain involved in altruism, whether risk-taking can be contagious, what drives people to eat junk food, and why people get drawn into financial bubbles.

"Over the past five years, the Caltech Conte Center has uncovered the foundations of decision-making, allowing us to understand basic choices," says Ralph Adolphs (PhD '92), Bren Professor of Psychology, Neuroscience, and Biology and director of the Conte Center. "All of these studies highlight a core theme that will be investigated over the next few years: how complex decisions are influenced by context. "

Recently, the center had its NIMH grant renewed and as a part of that process, outlined its plans for the next five years. Adolphs says the center will shift its focus from trying to understand the basic mechanics of decision-making toward trying to understand the complex ways in which social settings affect decision-making processes

"The fact is that in the real world we make choices where there is no clear 'best' choice, where other people's opinions influence us, and where we often choose something that we know we should not choose," says Adolphs, who is also the director and the Allen V. C. Davis and Lenabelle Davis Leadership Chair of the Caltech Brain Imaging Center, where much of the research will be conducted.

"This new research direction is extremely important because it also highlights why everybody makes somewhat different decisions, and why some people can make very good decisions, while others make very bad decisions. What accounts for these differences?"

Research at the center will be organized into five projects, each tackling a different facet of decision-making:

Observational learning: Psychology professor John O'Doherty will investigate three mechanisms of observational learning: social inference (deducing another person's goals or intentions), action imitation (watching another person and copying their actions), and self-based reinforcement (seeing another person's actions and the resulting rewards and imagining them happening to oneself).

Altruism: Adolphs and Cendri Hutcherson, director of the University of Toronto's Decision Neuroscience Lab, will team up to look at how different social situations affect altruistic behavior in an individual.

Threat: Dean Mobbs, assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience, and Colin Camerer, the Robert Kirby Professor of Behavioral Economics and T&C Chen Center for Social and Decision Neuroscience Leadership Chair, will focus on the neural systems used in threat response. In particular, they will test if social threats and biological threats are processed in the same way, and whether membership in a social group has an effect on how humans respond to threats.

Neural implants: Richard Andersen, the James G. Boswell Professor of Neuroscience, T&C Chen Brain-Machine Interface Center Leadership Chair; and director of the T&C Brain-Machine Interface Center, will work with Ueli Rutishauser (PhD '08), associate professor of neurosurgery, neurology and biomedical sciences at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, to observe brain activity of patients with neural prosthetics during social situations.

Brain lesions: Daniel Tranel, professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, will look at patients with brain lesions to see how decision-making processes are affected when various areas of the brain are damaged.

Caltech's Conte Center is one of a network of such centers supported by NIMH and named after former House of Representatives member Silvio O. Conte, who throughout his career supported federal funding for mental health research and treatment.

To read more about Caltech's Conte Center, visit For more information on the Caltech Brain Imaging Center and the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Institute for Neuroscience, of which it is part, visit

Written by Emily Velasco

Emily Velasco