Does autonomic arousal distinguish good and bad decisions? Healthy individuals’ skin conductance reactivity during the Iowa Gambling Task

P. Jenkinson, S.R. Baker, N.M.J. Edelstyn, S.J. Ellis

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    The Somatic Marker Hypothesis (SMH) proposes that physiological feedback to the brain influences cognitive appraisal and decision-making; however, the strength of evidence in support of the SMH is equivocal. In this study we examined the validity of the SMH by measuring physiological arousal in a population of healthy individuals playing the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT); a computerised card game designed to assess real-life decisionmaking. We also aimed to clarify uncertainty regarding the influence of reinforcer type and impulsiveness to IGT performance and the SMH. Skin conductance level (SCL) and heart rate reactivity were measured in forty-one participants performing the IGT using either facsimile or real money. Participants were categorised as non-impaired or impaired on the basis of their IGT performance, and any differences in performance and physiological between groups were examined. Heart rate data did not reveal any effects. Robust differences in SCL reactivity during the task were not found between impaired and nonimpaired individuals; however, marginal SCL rises were observed when non-impaired individuals anticipated and received a reward from disadvantageous choices compared with advantageous ones. This effect was found only when using facsimile money and did not occur in impaired individuals, suggesting some effect of reinforcer type on physiological activity and performance, and a difference in the physiology of impaired and non-impaired individuals. No significant differences in impulsiveness were found between impaired and non-impaired individuals. The findings suggest that autonomic activity is independent of long-term good or bad decision-making, and may reflect differences between decks in the magnitude of gain and loss. It is concluded that further substantiating evidence is needed for the SMH to continue as an explanation for human decision-making.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)141-149
    JournalJournal of Psychophysiology
    Issue number3
    Publication statusPublished - 2008


    • somatic marker hypothesis
    • Iowa gambling task
    • skin conductance
    • heart rate
    • healthy volunteers
    • decision-making


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