Alternative outcomes create biased expectations regarding the received outcome: Evidence from event-related potentials

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Abstract

After choosing between uncertain options, one might get feedback on both the outcome of the chosen option and the outcome of the unchosen option (the alternative). Behavioral research has shown that in such cases people engage in outcome comparison, and that the alternative outcome influences the way one evaluates his own received outcome. Moreover, this influence differs whether one was responsible or not for the choice made. In two studies, we looked for the electrophysiological correlates of outcome comparison. Subjects chose one of two boxes shown on the screen, each box contained a gain or a loss. The alternative outcome was always revealed first, followed by the received outcome. In half of the trials the software picked one box instead of subjects. We tested whether the feedback-related negativity (FRN) and the P3 elicited by the received reflect outcome comparison. As expected, we found that the FRN and P3 were more positive when the received outcome was a gain (vs. a loss). The FRN and P3 were also sensitive to the value of the alternative outcome, but contrary to our predictions, they were more positive when the alternative outcome was a gain (vs. a loss). As the FRN and P3 are sensitive to expectations, we hypothesized that our findings might result from subjects’ biased expectations: subjects might have wrongly believed that a good (bad) alternative outcome signaled a bad (good) received outcome. This hypothesis, coined as the Alternative Omen Effect, was confirmed in parallel in a series of behavioral experiments: people see an illusory negative correlation between the uncorrelated outcomes of choice options (reported in Marciano-Romm et al. (2016)). A challenge for future research will be to disentangle the effects of expectation from those of outcome comparison.

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