Decision-making in uncertain contexts: The role of autonomic markers in resolving indecision

Ty Lees, Roisin White, Xutong Zhang, Nilam Ram, Lisa M. Gatzke-Kopp

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Although impulsivity is associated with an increased willingness to make risky decisions, uncertainty intolerance may also contribute to maladaptive decision-making behavior, where individuals neglect to pursue potential rewards even when probabilities for success are in their favor. Several theories have sought to explain the neural systems that guide decision-making in this context, with evidence supporting a role for increased sympathetic activation. However, it remains unclear whether the sympathetic system is associated with greater apprehension in response to uncertain outcomes, or whether it serves to guide behavioral decisions in the context of this uncertainty. Furthermore, although postulated as a within-person process, most research has examined the association between decision behavior and sympathetic activation at the between-person level. We hypothesize that in the context of uncertainty between-person differences in skin conductance will be associated with longer deliberation times; whereas within-person trial-level increases in skin conductance will be associated with a tendency to reject uncertain options. Data were collected from n = 56 children aged 7–11 years, using a computerized card game in which children chose to accept or reject cards of varying point value at varying levels of probability. Skin conductance level (SCL) was recorded throughout the task. No significant between-person associations emerged. However, within-person analyses indicated that momentary deliberation time moderated the association between momentary skin-conductance and decision outcome. This moderation was such that for trials during which the individual deliberated longer (i.e., was more indecisive), a concurrent increase in skin conductance was associated with a significantly higher likelihood of rejecting the card. The within-person nature of these results suggests that skin conductance may help in resolving indecision in the context of uncertainty.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)220-229
Number of pages10
JournalInternational Journal of Psychophysiology
StatePublished - Jul 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Neuroscience
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Physiology (medical)


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