Testing the Somatic Marker Hypothesis in decisions-from-experience with non-stationary outcome probabilities.

Rebecca J. Wright, Tim Rakow*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Introduction: The Somatic Marker Hypothesis (SMH) posits that in experience- based choice, people develop physiological reactions that mark options as either positive or negative. These somatic markers aid decision making because they differentiate between “good” and “bad” options during pre-choice deliberation.
Methods: We examined this proposed role for somatic states in two decision- from-experience tasks (each N = 36) in which participants selected repeatedly with full feedback (i.e., for obtained and forgone outcomes) between two unlabeled options that returned wins or losses, with half receiving an additional summary of past outcomes. The probabilities of good and bad outcomes changed at an unannounced point. Participants completed a 100-trial game with a switch in the optimal option after trial 40 (Study 1) or a 200-trial game with switch points after trial 40 and trial 120 (Study 2). Skin conductance (SC) was measured continuously as an index of emotional intensity, from which we extracted measures of anticipatory SC (pre-choice) and outcome SC (post-choice).
Results: Participants reliably selected the optimal option prior to any switches. They also altered their choices appropriately when the payoffs changed, though optimal play following payoff switches was reduced. Losses resulted in a greater outcome SC than wins, but only in Study 1, as did the finding that the outcome SC was greater when the forgone outcome was positive. Anticipatory SC did not reliably predict optimal play in either study.
Discussion: These results provide little support for the SMH. Our studies point to the importance of using diverse tasks and measures and very large sample sizes when testing the role of somatic states in decision making.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1195009
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 28 Jul 2023


  • risky choice
  • experiential choice
  • learning
  • skin conductance
  • outcome response
  • anticipatory response


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