New Research Suggests that Decisions are Driven by Expectations of Pleasure

New Research Suggests that Decisions are Driven by Expectations of Pleasure

Scientists have discovered that a reward chemical in the brain plays a key role in choices such as where to go on vacation. The neurotransmitter dopamine, which helps transmit signals between nerve cells, is linked to reward-seeking behavior, and generates pleasant feelings that are associated with sex, food, and drug addiction.

The new research suggests that ordinary decisions are driven by expectations of pleasure involving dopamine.

Scientists from University College London conducted an experiment in which 61 volunteers were asked to imagine their ideal vacation.

Participants were first invited to rate their expectations of happiness at each of 80 destinations, ranging from Thailand to Greece. They were then given a drug that increases dopamine activity and asked to imagine being on vacation in those destinations.
The next day they had to pick between pairs of destinations they had assigned equal ratings at the start of the study.

One member of each pair had been given the dopamine-enhancing drug L-DOPA, and the other member was given a placebo.

Finally, the volunteers rated all 80 destinations again.

The research showed that the dopamine effect had an impact on choices. Participants were more likely to select destinations imagined after taking L-DOPA, and final ratings for destinations visualized under L-DOPAs influence also increased.

The researchers wrote in the journal Current Biology: “Understanding how hedonic expectations are formed is critical both for understanding human action, which is largely driven by estimations of future pleasure and pain, and for understanding how pleasure expectation can go awry in a multitude of neuro-psychiatric disorders that implicate dopamine, such as drug addiction.”

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