Individuals with anxiety disorders tend to focus on threat-related information and
are more likely to interpret ambiguous information as negative than as positive (
Cognitive vulnerability to emotional disorders.
). Therefore, it is natural to assume that when anxious individuals make economic
decisions, they preferentially attend to potential negative outcomes rather than positive
outcomes. Consistent with this notion, a few studies have documented reduced economic
risk taking in anxiety (
Anxiety and decision-making.
). However, enhanced perception of potential losses—or loss aversion,
as economists call it—is only one of several basic cognitive processes that may suppress
risk taking. Prior studies have employed experimental paradigms that did not allow
independent evaluation of each of these cognitive processes. In a study reported in
this issue of Biological Psychiatry
, Charpentier et al.
- Charpentier C.J.
- Aylward J.
- Roiser J.P.
- Robinson O.J.
Enhanced risk aversion, but not loss aversion, in unmedicated pathological anxiety.
) take a behavioral economic approach to decision making under risk in generalized
anxiety disorder (GAD). Their primary goal is to distinguish between the effects of
loss aversion and risk aversion (
Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk.
) on choice behavior. To understand these effects, let us consider the choice of whether
to accept a mixed lottery—a lottery that offers a potential gain but also a potential
loss. Figure 1A
presents such a mixed lottery with 50% chance of winning $8 and 50% chance of losing
$4. The subjective value, or utility,
of the lottery depends not only on these amounts and probabilities but also on the
individual’s attitudes toward these amounts and probabilities. Figure 1B–D
presents the utility curves for gains and losses of three different individuals and
marks the utilities of an $8 gain (green) and a $4 loss (red). Utility functions are
typically concave in the gain domain and convex in the loss domain, indicating diminished
sensitivity for increased value. In the gain domain, this diminished sensitivity is
translated into risk aversion. Participant 1 (Figure 1B
) exhibits slight risk aversion in the gain domain, obtaining just over 5 utility
units from a gain of $8. This participant places the same weight on gains and on losses
and thus expects the utility of a $4 loss to equal half of that of the $8 gain, with
a negative sign. The lottery’s expected utility for this participant therefore is
high, and she is likely to accept the lottery. Participant 2 (Figure 1C
) exhibits a similar degree of risk aversion. For this participant, however, losses
loom larger than gains, such that his negative utility from a $4 loss is quite high,
leading to an overall negative expected utility for the lottery. Thus, increased loss
aversion may drive reduced risk taking in this participant compared with Participant
1. Participant 3 (Figure 1D
) is also less likely to accept the lottery, but for a different reason. Like Participant
1, Participant 3 weighs gains and losses equally. This participant, however, exhibits
increased risk aversion (reflected in a more curved utility function in the gain domain),
which decreases the utility of the gain and reduces the overall desirability of the