Are Your Decisions Based on Impulse or Reason?


• A recent study uncovered how our brains and behaviors differ when faced with food and money rewards.
• Brain regions react differently to rewards, revealing impulse-driven subconscious patterns of decision-making.
• Understanding these differences can improve strategies for managing impulsive behaviors and addictions.


Every day, we face a range of decisions, from picking a shirt or blouse for work to choosing a career path. Some of these decisions have far-reaching consequences that may affect the rest of our lives. These choices can be difficult, and we aren’t often aware of the reasons behind why we make certain choices. A new study explores how we make decisions when it comes to short and long-term rewards. The study found that we were more impulsive with decisions that may bring about an immediate reward versus those that have longer-term consequences. The hope is that when we understand how we make long-term decisions, we may develop better tools that control how we make those decisions that may have serious consequences in our lives.

The study was conducted by Professor Burkhard Pleger from Ruhr University Bochum. The team wanted to know how we make decisions about what to eat and where to invest. They asked participants to choose between smaller immediate rewards and larger rewards that they had to wait for. The longer they waited, the bigger the reward. Brain activity was monitored using functional MRI, which shows which parts of the brain are active during decision-making. The study found that the decision itself ultimately comes down to our own level of self-control.

How Our Brain Ultimately Processes Decisions

The brain scans revealed interesting differences when it came to each type of reward. Ultimately, the team found that people with lower self-control made more impulsive choices, such as overeating. By using basic everyday rewards, Pleger and his team discovered how we manage our impulses and make decisions, leading to the ability to create a more informed and controlled approach to the decisions we make every day.

When people made decisions about money, the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for thinking about the future and self-control, was more active. When deciding about food, brain areas including the ventral striatum and orbitofrontal cortex that are linked to immediate satisfaction and how the choice will be perceived by others were more engaged. This means that our decision-making pattern depends on the type of reward that we are presented with.

By understanding how our brains respond to different types of rewards, this study helps us understand human behavior and self-control. Professor Pleger believes that understanding these differences can lead to new treatments for impulsive behaviors and addictions. For example, targeted cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) can help modify thought patterns to improve self-control. Mindfulness training can teach individuals to become more aware of their impulses, allowing them to feel more grounded and present when making decisions. Neurofeedback can use real-time brain activity monitoring to help individuals regulate their brain functions, which can help them make particularly difficult decisions, specifically surrounding unhealthy or addictive choices.

Impulse Control and Marketing Practices

Understanding how we process food and money rewards can have big impacts in psychology, counseling, and marketing. For example, personalized offers tailored to individual preferences, loyalty programs rewarding repeat purchases, and targeted advertising based on customer data can all enhance engagement and drive sales. Additionally, limited-time promotions and gamification techniques—that is, integrating elements of gameplay into non-game contexts to enhance engagement and motivation—can leverage our tendency for immediate rewards to prompt quicker purchasing decisions and make interactions more enjoyable and rewarding.

These studies have uncovered the universal aspects of decision-making while recognizing the diverse ways individuals respond to food and money rewards. This insight deepens our understanding of human behavior and provides tools for better self-control and decision-making. By grasping these patterns, we can develop more effective solutions for addictive patterns of behaviors.


Read the article online on Psychology Today.

© William A. Haseltine, PhD. All Rights Reserved.