Threat affects risk preferences in movement decision making

Megan K. O'Brien*, Alaa A. Ahmed

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Emotional states such as sadness, anger, and threat have been shown to play a critical role in decision-making processes. Here we addressed the question of whether risk preferences are influenced by postural threat and whether this influence generalizes across motor tasks. We examined risk attitudes in the context of arm-reaching (ARM) and whole-body (WB) leaning movements, expecting that increased postural threat would lead to proportionally similar changes in risk-sensitivity for each motor task. Healthy young adults were shown a series of two-alternative forced-choice lotteries, where they were asked to choose between a riskier lottery and a safer lottery on each trial. Our lotteries consisted of different monetary rewards and target sizes. Subjects performed each choice task at ground level and atop an elevated platform. In the presence of this postural threat, increased physiological arousal was correlated with decreased movement variability. To determine risk-sensitivity, we quantified the frequency with which a subject chose the riskier lottery and fit lottery responses to a choice model based on cumulative prospect theory (CPT). Subjects exhibited idiosyncratic changes in risk-sensitivity between motor tasks and between elevations. However, we found that overweighting of small probabilities increased with postural threat in the WB task, indicating a more cautious, risk-averse strategy is ascribed to the possibility of a fall. Subjects were also more risk-seeking in the WB movements than in ARM at low elevation; this behavior does not seem to derive from consistent distortions in utility or probability representations but may be explained by subjects' inaccurate estimation of their own motor variability. Overall, our findings suggest that implicit threat can modify risk attitudes in the motor domain, and the threat may induce risk-aversion in salient movement tasks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberA150
JournalFrontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience
Issue numberJune
StatePublished - Jun 9 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • Neuroeconomics
  • Postural threat
  • Prospect theory
  • Risk-sensitivity
  • Sensorimotor control

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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