An Analysis of Decision under Risk in Rats


Christine Constantinople


In 1979, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky published a ground-breaking paper titled ‘‘Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk,’’ which presented a behavioral economic theory that accounted for the ways in which humans deviate from economists’ normative workhorse model, Expected Utility Theory. For example, people exhibit probability distortion (they overweight low probabilities), loss aversion (losses loom larger than gains), and reference dependence (outcomes are evaluated as gains or losses relative to an internal reference point). In our paper “An Analysis of Decision under Risk in Rats,” recently published in Current Biology, we found that rats exhibited many of these same biases, using a task in which they chose between guaranteed and probabilistic rewards. However, prospect theory assumes stable preferences in the absence of learning, an assumption at odds with alternative frameworks such as animal learning theory and reinforcement learning. Rats also exhibited trial history effects, consistent with ongoing learning. A reinforcement learning model in which state-action values were updated by the subjective value of outcomes according to prospect theory reproduced rats’ nonlinear utility and probability weighting functions and also captured trial-by-trial learning dynamics. This work provides a foundation for using the powerful experimental toolkit available in rodents to interrogate the neural circuit basis of phenomena described in behavioral economics.