Neural precursors of deliberate and arbitrary decisions in the study of voluntary action
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Description: The readiness potential (RP)—a key ERP correlate of upcoming action—is known to precede subjects' reports of their decision to move. Some view this as evidence against a causal role for consciousness in human decision-making and thus against free-will. Yet those studies focused on arbitrary decisions—purposeless, unreasoned, and bereft of consequences. It remains unknown to what degree the RP generalizes to deliberate decisions—more ecological and relevant to real life. We directly compared deliberate and arbitrary decision-making during a $1000-donation task to non-profit organizations. While we found the expected RPs for arbitrary decisions, they were strikingly absent for deliberate ones. Our results and drift-diffusion model are congruent with the RP representing accumulation of noisy, random fluctuations that drive arbitrary—but not deliberate—decisions. They further point to different neural mechanisms underlying deliberate and arbitrary decisions, challenging the generalizability of studies that argue for no causal role for consciousness in decision-making to real-life decisions. The EEG data we recorded for this project can be found here.