Affective Guidance in the Iowa Gambling Task

By Wagar, Brandon M.; Dixon, Mike | Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience, December 2006 | Go to article overview
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Affective Guidance in the Iowa Gambling Task


Wagar, Brandon M., Dixon, Mike, Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience


It has been suggested that affective states can guide higher level cognitive processes and that such affective guidance may be particularly important when real-life decisions are made under uncertainty. We ask whether affect guides decisions in a laboratory task that models real-life decisions under uncertainty. In the Iowa gambling task (IGT), participants search for monetary payoffs in an uncertain environment Recent evidence against an affective guidance interpretation of the IGT indicates a need to set a standard for what counts as evidence of affective guidance. We present a novel analysis of IGT, and our results show that participants' galvanic skin response (GSR) reflects an affective process that precedes and guides cognition. Specifically, prior to participants' knowledge of the optimal strategy, their GSRs are significantly higher when they are about to select from a bad deck, relative to a good deck, and this difference in GSR is correlated with a behavioral preference for the good deck.

The question of how much conscious control we have over our decisions is one of the most interesting and important questions of psychological research. Traditional thinking in cognitive psychology has assumed that complex decision making does not rely on, and is not necessarily influenced by, affective processes. However, recent research in psychology, behavioral economics, and neuroscience (Cohen & Blum, 2002; Kahneman, 2003) suggests that affective processes play an important role in many decision-making processes. Specifically, it has been suggested that affective processes precede and guide cognition (Zajonc, 1980) and that affective guidance may be particularly important when real-life decisions are made in an uncertain environment (Damasio, 1994). Affect, as it is understood here, is distinct from emotion. Affect can be understood in relation to the idea of core affect (Russell, 2003). At the heart of emotion, mood, and other emotionally charged events are conscious states experienced as simply feeling good or bad. These states, called core affect, can influence perception, cognition, and behavior even though people have no direct access to these causal connections. The central question we ask is whether affect guides decisions in a laboratory task that models real-life decisions in an uncertain environment.

In the Iowa gambling task (IGT; Bechara, Damasio, Damasio, & Anderson, 1994; Bechara, Damasio, Tranel, & Damasio, 1997), participants search for monetary payoffs in an uncertain environment. Individuals are given a $2,000 loan of play money and four decks of cards and are instructed to make a series of card selections from any of the four decks, until they are told to stop. The participants are instructed to play so that they maximize profit on the loan. Turning each card carries an immediate reward (which is large for Decks A and B and small for Decks C and D). In addition, after turning some cards, the participants receive a punishment (which is large for Decks A and B and small for Decks C and D). Decks A and B are equivalent in terms of overall net loss, but the punishment is more frequent and of smaller magnitude for Deck A than for Deck B. Decks C and D are equivalent in terms of overall net gain, but the punishment is more frequent and of smaller magnitude for Deck C than for Deck D. The resulting combination of rewards and punishments results in an optimal strategy, so that playing from Decks A or B (bad decks) results in an overall loss, whereas playing from Decks C or D (good decks) results in an overall profit. The participants are told that they are free to switch from any deck to another at any time and as often as they wish. However, the participants are not told how many card selections must be made and are blind to the punishment schedules.

Typically, the participants adopt the optimal strategy of picking predominantly from good decks and avoiding bad decks. In fact, the participants initially start to show a physiological preference by exhibiting higher galvanic skin responses (GSRs) when they are about to select a card from a bad deck than when they are about to select a card from a good deck, even though their subjective reports fail to reveal conscious knowledge of the optimal strategy.

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