Don’t Sweat It: Re-Examining the Somatic Marker Hypothesis Using Variants of the Balloon Analogue Risk Task

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Current thinking on the role of emotions in decision making has been highly influenced by a theory—the somatic marker hypothesis (SMH), which emphasizes the role of physiological mechanisms in guiding decisions—and by variants of a single task—the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT), whose development is closely tied to that theory. To address potential shortcomings in the IGT, we used 3 variants of another task—the Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART)—as a novel means of testing the SMH via behavioral and physiological arousal (skin conductance) data. We manipulated the emotional content of the task by altering its framing (loss vs. gain) and point of commitment to taking risk (in advance vs. in the moment), while also assessing skin conductance. We find consistent support for elements of the SMH: decisions ending in failure result in higher skin conductance than successes; and those failures inhibit risk taking on subsequent trials. However, we find little support for skin conductance guiding decision making—a core prediction of the SMH.

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