Shifted risk preferences in pathological gambling

Abstract

Background: Pathological gambling (PG) is an impulse control disorder characterized by excessive monetary risk seeking in the face of negative consequences. We used tools from the field of behavioral economics to refine our description of risk-taking behavior in pathological gamblers. This theoretical framework allowed us to confront two hypotheses: (1) pathological gamblers distort winning probabilities more than controls; and (2) pathological gamblers merely overweight the whole probability range. Method: Eighteen pathological gamblers and 20 matched healthy participants performed a decision-making task involving choices between safe amounts of money and risky gambles. The online adjustment of safe amounts, depending on participants' decisions, allowed us to compute 'certainty equivalents' reflecting the subjective probability weight associated with each gamble. The behavioral data were then fitted with a mathematical function known as the 'probability weighting function', allowing us to disentangle our two hypotheses. Results: The results favored the second hypothesis, suggesting that pathological gamblers' behavior reflects economic preferences globally shifted towards risk, rather than excessively distorted probability weighting. A mathematical parameter (elevation parameter) estimated by our fitting procedure was found to correlate with gambling severity among pathological gamblers, and with gambling affinity among controls. Conclusions: PG is associated with a specific pattern of economic preferences, characterized by a global (i.e. probability independent) shift towards risky options. The observed correlation with gambling severity suggests that the present 'certainty equivalent' task may be relevant for clinical use. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2013 APA, all rights reserved)

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