Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex Encodes a Latent Estimate of Cumulative Reward.
Juechems K., Balaguer J., Ruz M., Summerfield C.
Humans and other animals accumulate resources, or wealth, by making successive risky decisions. If and how risk attitudes vary with wealth remains an open question. Here humans accumulated reward by accepting or rejecting successive monetary gambles within arbitrarily defined temporal contexts. Risk preferences changed substantially toward risk aversion as reward accumulated within a context, and blood oxygen level dependent (BOLD) signals in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (PFC) tracked the latent growth of cumulative economic outcomes. Risky behavior was captured by a computational model in which reward prompts an adaptive update to the function that links utilities to choices. These findings can be understood if humans have evolved economic decision policies that fail to maximize overall expected value but reduce variance in cumulative outcomes, thereby ensuring that resources remain above a critical survival threshold.