Neither Threat of Shock nor Acute Psychosocial Stress Affects Ambiguity Attitudes

Deshawn Chatman Sambrano, Arlene Lormestoire, Candace Raio, Paul Glimcher, Elizabeth A. Phelps

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Decisions under uncertainty can be differentiated into two classes: risky, which has known probabilistic outcomes, and ambiguous, which has unknown probabilistic outcomes. Across a variety of types of decisions, people find ambiguity extremely aversive, subjectively more aversive than risk. It has been shown that the transient sympathetic arousal response to a choice predicts decisions under ambiguity but not risk, and that lifetime stress uniquely predicts attitudes toward ambiguity. Building on these findings, this study explored whether we could bias ambiguity and risk preferences with an arousal or acute stress manipulation that is incidental to the choice in two independent experiments. One experiment induced sympathetic arousal with an anticipatory threat paradigm, and the other manipulated incidental acute stress via a psychosocial stressor. The efficacy of the manipulations was confirmed via pupil dilation and salivary cortisol, respectively. Participants made choices between a guaranteed $5 option and a lottery with either a known (risky) or unknown (ambiguous) probabilistic outcome. Consistent with previous findings, participants were more averse to a given level of ambiguity than to a numerically equal level of risk. However, in contrast to our hypothesis, we found no evidence that transient arousal or acute stress that is incidental to the choice biases ambiguity preferences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)425-437
Number of pages13
JournalAffective Science
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2022


  • Ambiguity aversion
  • Emotion and decision making
  • Uncertainty

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Behavioral Neuroscience
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Social Psychology


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