Psychology & Psychotherapy

Excellence in Scholarship and Learning


Decision Making

Towards an Evolutionary Theory of Human Action

Mauro Maldonato is a psychiatrist and Professor at the University of Basilicata, Italy. He was a visiting professor at many universities in Europe and North and South America. His research field are cognitive neurosciences, with particular attention to decision making, consciousness and research on research.

Since the dawn of time human beings have had to make decisions. Wise or foolish, thoughtful or instinctive, altruistic or selfish, decision-making – from the most simple to the most complex – enables people to confront and overcome constant environmental challenges. Yet, despite the momentousness of decision-making in adaptability terms, men and women ignore the actual process that takes place in their minds when, for example, they invest in the stock market, buy a car, trust a person they just met, or simply decide to go to the movies. While some decisions are taken in a few seconds (when we act impulsively without time to evaluate the process), other decisions require considerable cognitive effort and accurate cost-benefit analysis. But is it only the optimal decision that deserves to be called rational? If this is the case, how then can we explain the wisdom of our instincts, of our emotions, of our ‘sixth sense’? Moreover, what is the role of subjectivity, free will, desire, culture in the decision-making process?

Research on decision-making has had a long and controversial history. The idea of a perfect rationality has more recently given way to the idea of a rationality conscious of its incompleteness – to a process that cannot be expressed or conceived in logical or rational terms. In this ground-breaking book, Mauro Maldonato reinterprets the secular controversy about the nature of human decision-making in light of recent discoveries in cognitive neurosciences and new research (neuroeconomics and neuroethics). At the end of this literary excursion along a stunning archipelago of rationality, morality, emotion and consciousness, the reader is provided with the means to view and assess personal decision-making and resultant action in a completely different way – a way that impacts positively on human interaction and psychological wholeness.

Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-421-5
Paperback Price: £18.95 / $32.50
Release Date: October 2010
Page Extent / Format: 120 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: No


1 An Evolutionary Hypothesis of Rationality
2 At the Origin of the Concept of Decision Making
3 The Neuro-Biological Bases of Decision Making
4 Towards a Science of Free Will?
5 The Altruistic Gene
6 The Cognition of Happiness


In his book, Maldonato provides a thoughtful look at how early scholars viewed decision-making and rationality. He takes the reader on an illustrative journey through the historic passages of decision-making all the way to modern notions of a more limited rationality and how humans can make choices under risk and uncertainty. He discusses Kahneman and Tversky's seminal work on heuristics and biases – ‘short cuts’ that rely on little information and modest cognitive resources that sometimes lead to persistent failures, but usually allow the decision-maker to make fast and fairly reliable choices. Herbert Simon and Gerd Gigerenzer's work on bounded rationality is discussed, with respect to its influence on decision-making research in economics and psychology. For Maldonato, the principle of bounded rationality – that organisms have limited resources, such as time, information, and cognitive capacity with which to find solutions to the problems they face – is a key insight to understanding the evolution of decision-making.
Journal of Evolutionary Psychology

The intellectual pursuit of formal, logical, rational decision making has a long, entrenched history, and it has taken centuries of labored analysis to finally recognize its limits. That is where psychiatrist, cognitive neuroscientist, philosopher, and evolutionary biologist Mauro Maldonato comes in. In his brilliant, comprehensive, and sometimes surprising new book, this daunting thinker takes us on a journey from the ancient Greek philosophers through the Renaissance and Enlightenment thinkers and on to more modern analyses and, ultimately, to the pioneers of cognitive psychology and neuroscience. Maldonato, who is a professor at the University of Basilicata, in Italy, is equally at ease with the specialized languages of all these disciplines, which he brings to bear on this impressive analysis.
... This slender volume is so densely packed with ideas that it is possible to touch on only a few key ones here, and superficially. The author does an admirable job of summarizing centuries of thinking about thinking, sorting out theories of induction, deduction, inference, logic, mental models, heuristics, and biases, highlighting the signal contributions of Aristotle, Descartes, pascal, Locke, Hume, Kant, and more, including the modern heirs to these traditions. Even though many of these philosophers pursued the rational mind and perfect decisions as ideals, some also harbored doubts about the possibility of perfect reason. English philosopher John Locke captured those doubts when he likened reason to a "candle that illuminates our path, but gives off a dim light incapable of illuminating everything" (p. 10), a metaphor that has been bolstered by voluminous evidence in our own time. The most robust evidence for the imperfection of human reason comes from the so-called heuristics and biases program, which has demonstrated convincingly that decision makers use much less formal cognitive strategies, which are rapid and efficient but lead to systematic biases in the way we assess our prospects in the world. Maldonato does a masterful job of summarizing the contributions of this program's adherents – Herbert Simon, Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, Gerd Gigerenzer, and others – who have illuminated the kinds of flawed decisions we typically make under the constraints of real life.
... Maldonato is clearly a free-ranging thinker, but his own research field is cognitive neuroscience, and he devotes a thorough and lucid chapter to the biological foundations of decision making. He dexterously surveys the latest on imaging technologies and the brain anatomy underlying emotion and judgment, and he essays the promising new fields of neuroeconomics, neuroethics, and neuroaesthetics. But in the end he properly refrains from "naïve enthusiasm" about neuroscientific hopes for mastering the complexity of choice anytime soon.
... The second half of Decision Making consists of provocative meditations on free will, morality, altruism, happiness – our humanness – but through the lens of evolutionary theory and neuroscientific evidence. Among the knotty questions he asks are, If the rules of ethics are inscribed in the brain, what is left of free will? Is there a universally valid morality rooted in the neutrons? How is our moral sense related to our emotions, and how do these reside in the evolved brain? What is individual identity? What is the connection between satisfaction of needs, pleasure, and human happiness?
... These are large, complex questions – and ancient ones. It is a lot to bite off in one volume, but Maldonato does not argue toward simplistic positions on them. What he does, skillfully and subtly, is raise these questions again in the context of what we know about genetic evolution, the brain, and the mind's limited but still potent decision-making strategies. With his sweeping command of the many diverse disciplines that make up the whole intellectual enterprise, he asks us – nudges us, prods us – to ponder these nuances about our humanity with fresh eyes.
American Journal of Psychology, Fall 2012

Books can be ordered by phone or online

Ordering in the UK, Europe, Asia, Australasia, South America and Rest of the World

Gazelle Book Services
Direct sales tel.: +44 (0)1524 528500; email:
Web ordering:

Ordering in the United States and Canada
Independent Publishers Group (IPG)
Direct sales tel.: (800) 888-4741
Web ordering:

Bookseller Ordering
Information is provided under the Resources tab.

eBook Ordering
e-Book type availability can be sourced via by book title. Kindle availability is via Amazon .com and sites.