Cognitive and neural bases of visual-context-guided decision-making

Sai Sun*, Hongbo Yu*, Shuo Wang*, Rongjun Yu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review


Humans adjust their behavioral strategies based on feedback, a process that may depend on intrinsic preferences and contextual factors such as visual salience. In this study, we hypothesized that decision-making based on visual salience is influenced by habitual and goal-directed processes, which can be evidenced by changes in attention and subjective valuation systems. To test this hypothesis, we conducted a series of studies to investigate the behavioral and neural mechanisms underlying visual salience-driven decision-making. We first established the baseline behavioral strategy without salience in Experiment 1 (n = 21). We then highlighted the utility or performance dimension of the chosen outcome using colors in Experiment 2 (n = 30). We demonstrated that the difference in staying frequency increased along the salient dimension, confirming a salience effect. Furthermore, the salience effect was abolished when directional information was removed in Experiment 3 (n = 28), suggesting that the salience effect is feedback-specific. To generalize our findings, we replicated the feedback-specific salience effects using eye-tracking and text emphasis. The fixation differences between the chosen and unchosen values were enhanced along the feedback-specific salient dimension in Experiment 4 (n = 48) but unchanged after removing feedback-specific information in Experiment 5 (n = 32). Moreover, the staying frequency was correlated with fixation properties, confirming that salience guides attention deployment. Lastly, our neuroimaging study (Experiment 6, n = 25) showed that the striatum subregions encoded salience-based outcome evaluation, while the vmPFC encoded salience-based behavioral adjustments. The connectivity of the vmPFC-ventral striatum accounted for individual differences in utility-driven, whereas the vmPFC-dmPFC for performance-driven behavioral adjustments. Together, our results provide a neurocognitive account of how task-irrelevant visual salience drives decision-making by involving attention and the frontal-striatal valuation systems. Public significance statement: Humans may use the current outcome to make behavior adjustments. How this occurs may depend on stable individual preferences and contextual factors, such as visual salience. Under the hypothesis that visual salience determines attention and subsequently modulates subjective valuation, we investigated the underlying behavioral and neural bases of visual-context-guided outcome evaluation and behavioral adjustments. Our findings suggest that the reward system is orchestrated by visual context and highlight the critical role of attention and the frontal-striatal neural circuit in visual-context-guided decision-making that may involve habitual and goal-directed processes.

Original languageEnglish
Article number120170
Number of pages15
Early online date14 May 2023
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jul 2023

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience

User-Defined Keywords

  • Attention
  • Behavioral adjustment
  • Outcome evaluation
  • Striatum
  • Subjective valuation
  • Visual salience


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