Former CV Starr Fellow Amitai Shenhav wins two prestigious awards

Amitai Shenhav, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Cognitive, Linguistic, & Psychological Sciences at Brown University, has won the Society for Neuroeconomics Early Career Award and the Cognitive Neuroscience Society Young Investigator Award. A former CV Starr Fellow at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute, Shenhav worked as a postdoc with PNI Professor Jonathan Cohen and former PNI professor Matthew Botvinick, now at Google DeepMind, before moving to Brown. The two awards recognize outstanding research by an early career scientist in the fields of cognitive and decision neuroscience.   

Shenhav’s lab at Brown conducts a mixture of computational modeling and experimentation to examine questions at the intersection of two areas in cognitive science: decision-making and cognitive control. Cognitive control — not often a focus within decision-making research — refers to the coordination of internal mental processes, like attention and working memory, to achieve a person’s goals. Broadly, Shenhav develops and tests models of how people make decisions about how to invest these mental resources, and how the process of making a decision is in turn shaped by the mental resources a person has at their disposal. 

For example, in an ongoing study, Shenhav’s lab had subjects perform a mentally demanding task in which the participant receives rewards for correct responses and penalties for incorrect responses. Consistent with predictions of their decision-making model, they find that participants change their strategy for performing the task (i.e., the way in which they invest cognitive control) depending on the relative rewards and penalties at stake: they work harder to complete more trials when rewards are higher while working more cautiously when penalties are higher. Shenhav is currently measuring brain activity while participants perform this task to understand how the brain integrates these different types of incentives and coordinates a person’s mental efforts accordingly. 

By considering the rich array of mental processes that impact decision making, Shenhav’s work may shed light on the underlying causes of how psychiatric and neurological disorders impact a person’s ability to achieve their goals. “For people with depression or schizophrenia, it can be hard to get motivated to do even relatively basic tasks,” says Shenhav. “We think about that from a motivational and decision-making standpoint. Do these people invest less effort in their tasks because the disorder impairs their thinking abilities, or because it changes their cost-benefit calculus about what kinds of tasks are worth doing?”

To Shenhav, the award from the Society for Neuroeconomics carries a special significance because questions of cognitive control have not typically been a prominent feature of decision making research in the neuroeconomics field. “The field was developed around topics that behavioral economists were interested in, decisions about actions in the real world: what am I going to buy? What do I want to eat?,” says Shenhav. “Decisions about control and control allocation have typically been more at the fringe. So it's exciting to see this pulled further into the mainstream.”

For Shenhav, his time as a CV Starr Fellow set him on a path of success as an independent investigator in his own lab. The CV Starr Fellows program funds exceptional early-career investigators to pursue independent research under the supervision of a mentor or several mentors at PNI. “Because my funding was secured and it also came with additional research funds and general flexibility, I was able to spend time on other projects than I would have otherwise. I was able to take more risks and explore new territory,” says Shenhav. “One of the things that came with that flexibility, that was uniquely possible at a place like Princeton, was the ability to work across different labs, to use that environment to its fullest potential. For me, it felt like being a kid in a candy store.”

by Brian DePasquale