Rosati, A. G., & Hare, B. (2016). Reward type modulates human risk preferences. Evolution and Human Behavior, 37, 159–168.
Money and biological rewards differ in many ways. Yet studies of human decision-making typically involve money, whereas nonhuman studies involve food. We therefore examined how context shifts human risk preferences to illuminate the evolution of decision-making. First, we assessed peoples’ risk preferences across food, prizes, and money in a task where individuals received real rewards and learned about payoffs through experience. We found that people were relatively more risk-seeking for both food and prizes compared to money—indicating that people may treat abstract reward markers differently from concrete rewards. Second, we compared human risk preferences for food with the performance of our closest phylogenetic relatives, chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and bonobos (Pan paniscus), in order to illuminate the evolutionary origins of human decision-making strategies. In fact, human and chimpanzees were both relatively more risk-seeking compared to bonobos. Finally, we investigated why people respond differently to money versus concrete rewards when making decisions. We found that people were more risk-prone when making decisions about money that was constrained as a store of value, compared to money that could be freely exchanged. This shows that people are sensitive to money’s usefulness as a store of value that can be used to acquire other types of rewards. Our results indicate that humans exhibit different preferences when making risky decisions about money versus food, an important consideration for comparative research. Furthermore, different psychological processes may underpin decisions about abstract rewards compared to concrete rewards.