This article is part of the Research Topic Decision Making under Uncertainty


Front. Neurosci., 07 February 2012 | doi: 10.3389/fnins.2012.00015

A neuropsychological approach to understanding risk-taking for potential gains and losses

  • 1 Department of Psychology, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, USA
  • 2 Department of Psychology, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, USA
  • 3 Decision Research, Eugene, OR, USA
  • 4 Department of Developmental and Social Processes, University of Rome, Rome, Italy
  • 5 Department of Psychiatry, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada
  • 6 Clinical Research Division, Douglas Mental Health University Institute, Montreal, QC, Canada

Affective neuroscience has helped guide research and theory development in judgment and decision-making by revealing the role of emotional processes in choice behavior, especially when risk is involved. Evidence is emerging that qualitatively and quantitatively different processes may be involved in risky decision-making for gains and losses. We start by reviewing behavioral work by Kahneman and Tversky (1979) and others, which shows that risk-taking differs for potential gains and potential losses. We then turn to the literature in decision neuroscience to support the gain versus loss distinction. Relying in part on data from a new task that separates risky decision-making for gains and losses, we test a neural model that assigns unique mechanisms for risky decision-making involving potential losses. Included are studies using patients with lesions to brain areas specified as important in the model and studies with healthy individuals whose brains are scanned to reveal activation in these and other areas during risky decision-making. In some cases, there is evidence that gains and losses are processed in different regions of the brain, while in other cases the same region appears to process risk in a different manner for gains and losses. At a more general level, we provide strong support for the notion that decisions involving risk-taking for gains and decisions involving risk-taking for losses represent different psychological processes. At a deeper level, we present mounting evidence that different neural structures play different roles in guiding risky choices in these different domains. Some structures are differentially activated by risky gains and risky losses while others respond uniquely in one domain or the other. Taken together, these studies support a clear functional dissociation between risk-taking for gains and risk-taking for losses, and further dissociation at the neural level.

Keywords: decision neuroscience, risky decision-making, gain/loss domain differences

Citation: Levin IP, Xue G, Weller JA, Reimann M, Lauriola M and Bechara A (2012) A neuropsychological approach to understanding risk-taking for potential gains and losses. Front. Neurosci. 6:15. doi: 10.3389/fnins.2012.00015

Received: 06 July 2011; Accepted: 19 January 2012;
Published online: 07 February 2012.

Edited by:

Kerstin Preuschoff, University of Zurich, Switzerland

Reviewed by:

Bruno B. Averbeck, National Institute of Mental Health, USA
Philippe N. Tobler, University of Zurich, Switzerland
Anna Van Duijvenvoorde, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands

Copyright: © 2012 Levin, Xue, Weller, Reimann, Lauriola and Bechara. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial License, which permits non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited.

*Correspondence: Irwin P. Levin, Department of Psychology, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA 52242, USA. e-mail:; Antoine Bechara, Department of Psychology, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089, USA. e-mail:

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