5 years ago

Enhanced Risk Aversion, But Not Loss Aversion, in Unmedicated Pathological Anxiety

Anxiety disorders are associated with disruptions in both emotional processing and decision making. As a result, anxious individuals often make decisions that favor harm avoidance. However, this bias could be driven by enhanced aversion to uncertainty about the decision outcome (e.g., risk) or aversion to negative outcomes (e.g., loss). Distinguishing between these possibilities may provide a better cognitive understanding of anxiety disorders and hence inform treatment strategies. Methods To address this question, unmedicated individuals with pathological anxiety (n = 25) and matched healthy control subjects (n = 23) completed a gambling task featuring a decision between a gamble and a safe (certain) option on every trial. Choices on one type of gamble—involving weighing a potential win against a potential loss (mixed)—could be driven by both loss and risk aversion, whereas choices on the other type—featuring only wins (gain only)—were exclusively driven by risk aversion. By fitting a computational prospect theory model to participants’ choices, we were able to reliably estimate risk and loss aversion and their respective contribution to gambling decisions. Results Relative to healthy control subjects, pathologically anxious participants exhibited enhanced risk aversion but equivalent levels of loss aversion. Conclusions Individuals with pathological anxiety demonstrate clear avoidance biases in their decision making. These findings suggest that this may be driven by a reduced propensity to take risks rather than a stronger aversion to losses. This important clarification suggests that psychological interventions for anxiety should focus on reducing risk sensitivity rather than reducing sensitivity to negative outcomes per se.

Publisher URL: www.sciencedirect.com/science

DOI: S0006322316331110

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