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Measures of risky decision making

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Some individuals often select risky alternatives when they reach decisions. When they need to decide between two alternatives, they tend to select the option that could be very rewarding but also be very detrimental--instead of the option that might be safer. This inclination predicts many unsuitable or undesirable behaviors, such as substance abuse, criminal activity, and excessive gambling.

Iowa Gambling Task

The Iowa Gambling Task is usually administered over computer (see Bechara, Damasio, Tranel, Damasio, 1997). Typically, four decks of cards are presented, face down, labeled A, B, C, and D, each comprising 40 cards. Participants begin with a specific amount of money, such as $1000. Usually, the money is not real, although sometimes small amount of real money are used instead. This amount is specified on the screen, sometimes above the decks.

The participants then select a card from any of the four decks. Usually, they merely click a mouse onto a specific deck. Each card can generate a reward, a penalty, or both. After a card is selected, this reward and penalty appears on the screen for several seconds. To illustrate, one card might generate a reward of $100, a penalty of $150, and thus a net loss of $50. Their overall amount would then shift from $1000 to $950.

Participants then repeat this process many times. The number of trials, however, is not usually specified. Nevertheless, 100 trials are often presented.

Unbeknownst to participants, the probability of a reward and penalty as well as the distribution of these rewards and penalties varies across the decks. That is, two of the decks, over time, are more likely to incur losses than are the other two decks. Specifically, the two disadvantageous decks, on average, might lose $25. The two advantageous decks, on average might gain $25.

Nevertheless, the losses that each deck incurs vary across trials and, therefore, is difficult to decipher at first. For one of the advantageous decks, each card generates a gain of $50, and one in two cards incurs a loss of $50. For the other advantageous deck, each card generates a gain of $50, and one in ten cards incurs a loss of $250. For one of the disadvantageous decks, each card generates a gain of $100, and one in ten cards incurs a loss of $1250. Finally, for the other disadvantageous decks, each card generates a gain of $100, and one in every two cards incurs losses that range from of $150 to $350, although variations to these schemes can be included.

Typically, at the outset, most participants will choose the disadvantageous decks, because the gains are higher. Over time, usually within the first 40 trials, participants learn to choose the advantageous decks. Nevertheless, participants with lesions in specific regions of the prefrontal cortex, such as the ventromedial, orbitofrontal regions (Bechara, Damasio, Tranel, & Anderson, 1994), as well as some substance abusers or offenders do not learn to choose the advantageous decks.

Performance and prefrontal functioning

According to the somatic marker hypothesis, proposed by Damasio (1994), when individuals need to decide between several alternatives, the various options evoke intuitive, automatic emotions. These emotions called somatic markers, which are learnt over time, enable individuals to reject unfavorable alternatives. According to Damasio (1994), these somatic markers might be underpinned by the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

Consistent with this proposition, when the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is damaged, participants do not perform well on the Iowa Gambling Task (see Bechara, Damasio, Tranel, & Anderson, 1998). Interestingly, these patients often exhibit some of the hallmarks of individuals with antisocial personality disorder. They are often impulsive, antisocial, not empathic, and unable to learn from negative experiences (e.g., Stuss, Gow, & Hetherington, 1992;; for a discussion, see Losel & Schmucker, 2004).

Nevertheless, research shows that other regions of the prefrontal cortex might also be related to performance on the Iowa Gambling Task. In one study, conducted by MacPherson, Phillips, Della Sala, and Cantagallo (2008), performance on this task was impaired in individuals with damage to the prefrontal cortex relative to healthy control participants. Nevertheless, no difference was discovered between the individuals with damage to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and individuals with damage to other regions of the prefrontal cortex. The number of participants with damage to other regions of the prefrontal cortex, however, was only 6.

Performance and psychopathology

Performance on the Iowa Gambling Task might also predict psychopathy or impulsive behaviors. Blair, Colledge, and Mitchell (2001) showed that psychopathic tendencies in adolescent boys, as measured by the Psychopathy Screening Device, is related to risky decision on the Iowa Gambling Task--that is, a propensity to choose the decks with sizeable rewards. Nevertheless, Schmitt, Brinkley, and Newman (1999) did not uncover such a pronounced relationship.

From the perspective of reward sensitivity theory, behavioral activation and behavioral inhibition, which can be related to psychopathy, are associated with performance on the Iowa Gambling Task. Specifically, when individuals show elevated levels of behavioral activation, representing sensitivity to rewards, but low levels of behavioral inhibition, representing sensitivity to punishment, they selected riskier choices on this task (van Honk, Hermans, Putnam, Montagne, and Schutter, 2002).

Determinants of performance

Werner, Duschek, and Schandry (in press) showed that negative emotional traits can undermine performance on the Iowa Gambling Task. That is, if individuals reported elevated levels of trait anxiety or limited ability to regulate emotions, they did not learn which decks are advantageous as rapidly as other participants.

Nevertheless, according to Guillaume, Jollant, Jaussent, Lawrence, Malafosse, and Courtet (2009), performance on the Iowa Gambling Task depends on both emotional, intuitive experiences, called somatic markers, as well as conscious, deliberate processes. To illustrate, individuals who perform well on this task tend to demonstrate elevated skin conductance responses before they choose a disadvantageous deck. This finding implies that individuals may learn which deck is disadvantageous--anticipation of which elicits autonomic responses such as sweating and thus skin conductance--sometimes before they are consciously aware of this principle. Nevertheless, conscious knowledge of these principles was also related to performance.

An awareness of mortality has also been shown to elicit risky, and unsuitable, decisions on the Iowa gambling task. In one study, participants were asked either to write about their own death or merely to write about dental pain. Next, they completed the Iowa gambling task. If participants had written about their death, their decisions were riskier. That is, they chose the alternative that usually generates a reasonable gain but occasionally incurs a massive loss and, thus, is not optimal (Hart, Schwabach, & Solomon, 2010).

Presumably, according to terror management theory, when individuals become aware of their mortality, defense mechanisms that inhibit the likelihood of death and other problems are evoked. Consequently, they often direct attention to their invulnerability, diverting their focus from threats and complications. These individuals, therefore, might disregard the probable costs, but instead focus unduly on the possible gains, of a decision (Hart, Schwabach, & Solomon, 2010).

Cambridge Risk Task

The Cambridge Risk Task is also sometimes used to assess risky decision making (Rogers, Owen, Middleton, Williams, Pickard, Sahakian, et al. 1999). Typically, six boxes appear on a screen. Some of these boxes are pink and other boxes are blue.

Participants are informed that a yellow token is concealed inside one of the boxes. Their task is merely to select whether this token is concealed inside a pink or blue box. They are informed they will win a certain amount of money, such as $10, if they correctly select a pink box, and lose the same amount if they incorrectly select a pink box. Similarly, they are informed they will win a different amount of money, such as $90, if they correctly select a blue box, and lose the same amount if they incorrectly select a blue box.

Both the amount of money allocated to each color as well as the proportion of pink and blue boxes varies across trials. Specifically, on trials in which more boxes are blue rather than pink, more money is rewarded or deducted if a pink rather than blue box is selected. Similarly, on trials in which more boxes are pink rather than blue, more money is rewarded or deducted if a blue box is selected. In other words, selecting the color that is underrepresented always increases the risk.

In this task, participants must decide whether to select the unlikely option, which could generate sizeable rewards, or the likely option, which could generate modest rewards. Some participants tend to select the likely or more common color--the color that generates less gain or incurs lower costs. This strategy is assumed to reflect an aversion to risk.

Ersche, Clark, London, Robbins, Sahakian, et al. (2006) examined whether substance abuse was related to performance on the Cambridge Risk Task. Participants were chronic users of amphetamine, opiates in methadone maintenance treatment, or heroin. In addition, some participants were previous users, abstinent for over one year, or individuals who had never consumed drugs illicitly. After a loss, users of opiates in methadone maintenance treatment were more inclined to chose the risky option, with the sizeable reward or penalty. This pattern, which was not observed in heroin or amphetamine users, might reflect the decline in negative affect that corresponds to methadone maintenance.

Balloon Analogue Risk Task

The Balloon Analogue Risk Task is also sometimes administered to assess risk taking (Lejuez, Read, Kahler, Richards, Ramsey, Stuart, et al. 2002;; see also Benjamin & Robbins, 2007;; Fein & Chang, 2008;; Hopko, Lejuez, Daughters, Aklin, Osborne, Simmons, et al., 2006;; Hunt, Hopko, Bare, Lejuez, & Robinson, 2005;; Lejuez, Aklin, Zvolensky, & Pedulla, 2003). In each of the 30 trials, a cartoon image of a balloon appears. Participants can then click a button several times, each click representing a pump that increases the size of this balloon. Each time the balloon is pumped, the participant earns additional money. However, the balloon, if pumped excessively, will burst, and all the money for that trial is forfeited. The size at which the balloon will burst varies across trials and is not specified to participants. The average number of clicks represents a measure of propensity to accept risks.

Several studies attest to the validity and utility of the Balloon Analogue Risk Task or BART. Specifically, risky taking on this task correlates with a variety of risky behaviors, such as substance abuse, gambling, and unsafe sex (see Lejuez, Aklin, Zvolensky, & Pedulla, 2003;; Lejuez, Read, Kahler, Richards, Ramsey, Stuart, et al, 2002). Furthermore, such risk taking is also associated with traits like psychopathy (Hunt, Hopko, Bare, Lejuez, & Robinson, 2005).

Fewer studies have established the reliability of this measure. Nevertheless, White, Lejuez, and de Wit (2008) showed that performance is stable across several days, with test retest reliability correlation coefficients approximating .77.

Self report measures

A variety of self report measures have been developed to assess orientations or attitudes towards risk taking. These measures include the Risk Taking Propensity Scale (Dahlbaeck 1990), the Stimulating-Instrumental Risk Inventory (Zaleskiewicz 2001), the T-type Personality Scale (Farley 1991), the Tension, Risk, Adventure Scale (Keinan, Meir, & Gome-Nemirovsky, 1984), and the Venturesomeness Questionnaire (Eysenck & Eysenck 1978). Some other questionnaires, such as the Sensation Seeking Scale (Zuckerman, 1991) and the Impulsiveness Questionnaire (Eysenck & Eysenck, 1977), also assess related inclinations.

Risk Taking Propensity Scale

The Risk Taking Propensity Scale is a self report measure of risk aversion (Dahlbaeck 1990). Participants specify whether a set of 11 items, such as "I can be incautious and take big risks" is a true or false representation of their behavior or inclinations.


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Last Update: 7/5/2016