Phineas gauged: Decision-making and the human prefrontal cortex

Alan G. Sanfey, Reid Hastie, Mary K. Colvin, Jordan Grafman*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

82 Scopus citations


Poor social judgment and decision-making abilities have often been attributed to people who have suffered injury to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC). However, few laboratory tests of decision-making have been conducted on these patients. The exception to this is the Iowa Gambling Task which has often, but not always, demonstrated differential performance between patients and controls. Results from patients with prefrontal cortex lesions on a novel test of decision-making are presented. Participants explored and chose from pairs of gambles that differed in their underlying distributions, primarily in the variance of their respective outcomes. In accordance with many findings from the behavioral decision-making literature, both young normal participants and older patient controls demonstrated a marked avoidance of risk and selected largely from secure, low variance gambles. In contrast, patients with ventromedial lesions were divided into two clear sub-groups. One group behaved similarly to normals, showing a risk-averse strategy. The other group displayed a distinctive risk-seeking behavior pattern, choosing predominantly from the high-variance, high-risk decks. This research demonstrates some of the advantages of using methods and theories from traditional decision-making research to study the behavior of patients, as well as the benefits of examining individual participants, and provides new insights into the nature of the decision-making deficit in patients with ventromedial prefrontal cortex lesions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1218-1229
Number of pages12
Issue number9
StatePublished - 2003


  • Decision-making
  • Frontal lobes
  • Risk

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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