Cristian Buc Calderon, Myrtille Dewulf, Wim Gevers, and Tom Verguts
PNAS, vol. 114 no. 40 10618–10623
Multistep decision making pervades daily life, but its underlying mechanisms remain obscure. We distinguish four prominent models of multistep decision making, namely serial stage, hierarchical evidence integration, hierarchical leaky competing accumulation (HLCA), and probabilistic evidence integration (PEI). To empirically disentangle these models, we design a two-step reward-based decision paradigm and implement it in a reaching task experiment. In a first step, participants choose between two potential upcoming choices, each associated with two rewards. In a second step, participants choose between the two rewards selected in the first step. Strikingly, as predicted by the HLCA and PEI models, the first-step decision dynamics were initially biased toward the choice representing the highest sum/mean before being redirected toward the choice representing the maximal reward (i.e., initial dip). Only HLCA and PEI predicted this initial dip, suggesting that first-step decision dynamics depend on additive integration of competing second-step choices. Our data suggest that potential future outcomes are progressively unraveled during multistep decision making.