Every day of our lives we make hundreds of decisions: what to have for breakfast, where to go, with whom, how and what to talk about, what to prioritize, when to rest… Many of them seem inconsequential to us and we hardly notice them, while in other cases we reflect and think carefully about the possible implications before making a decision.

Sometimes guided by reason, sometimes by emotion. But we decided. In either case, the fact of deciding does not cease to require a wide range of operations and mental processes to be carried out.

Trying to explain how we decide is something that has generated great interest from disciplines such as psychology, having generated different instruments that seek to contribute to discovering it through the analysis of our responses. One of these instruments is the Iowa Gambling Task . And it is about this interesting instrument that we will talk throughout this article.

What is Iowa Gambling?

The Iowa Gambling Task is a type of psychological test of the behavioral type used as an evaluation instrument, which allows us to assess and evaluate the decision making process of the person who carries it out . Specifically, it aims to assess the degree of involvement of cognitive and emotional factors in decision-making.

It is a task of certain complexity in which a total of 4 decks of cards (A, B,C and D) are provided to the subject to value, indicating him that he has a certain amount of virtual money (specifically 2000 dollars). The subject must pick up cards from the decks, which may either cause him/her to make a profit or a loss, and he/she is assigned the task of obtaining the maximum possible benefit.

The decks are not the same as each other: two of them cause considerable gains and losses, while the cards of the other two involve both minor gains and losses . Deck A and deck B in particular usually provide about $100 per move, and one in ten times cause a loss of $1250 (although deck A causes losses more often, the total amount is the same as for deck B).

As for decks C and D, they cause losses of $250 every ten trials, being more usual the loss in C although the final balance is the same in both decks. While decks A and B have a final balance of -250, decks C and D have a positive balance of $250. Thus, decks A and B would actually reflect negative results and would be bad decks, while decks C and B would allow for a moderate but secure gain.

However, the subject knows nothing about this: he is faced with an ambiguous task since he has no knowledge whatsoever of what is in each deck. Thus, he starts from a situation of total uncertainty and little by little and through a process of trial and error he will learn the characteristics of the decks . The choices they make will depend not on previous knowledge but on the feedback generated at an emotional level by the successive choice of cards, although they will learn to choose those that are most favourable to them.

Although traditionally this task has been carried out in physics, at present a computerized version is available that allows a more comfortable performance and evaluation for both the evaluator and the evaluated, being this much more common in consultation.

The somatic marker hypothesis

The Iowa Game of Chance was proposed and designed mainly based on a concrete, explanatory hypothesis of decision making. It is the hypothesis of the somatic marker of Damasio .

It proposes that the decision-making process is fundamentally guided and modulated by the emotional and somatic responses that anticipate the consequences of our decisions, so that we rank the possible choices in search of those most favorable to us. The emotional responses are interpreted by a network or neuronal pathway in which the amygdala, in contact with the hypothalamus and the brain stem, generates impulses that are subsequently regulated by these nuclei in order to generate a somatic response.

That is why a response is “marked” at the somatic level as pleasant or unpleasant, something that results in replicating or avoiding the behavior that caused it. Likewise, through the orbitofrontal we generate a replication of this sensation every time we carry out a similar task, something that explains why response tendencies arise and are maintained.

In what situations or disorders is this task usually employed?

Although technically it could be used in any setting in which an attempt is made to analyze a person’s decision-making process (since there are interpersonal or even intrapersonal differences depending on the time and state of the subject), the use of the Iowa Gambling Task is usually limited to the clinical setting or to research.

In both cases it is usually used to assess the existence of dysfunctions or alterations in the orbitofrontal cortex , especially in cases of disorders or injuries associated with problems in these areas. While those with an uninjured orbitofrontal tend to experience stress responses when faced with mallets considered “bad” after a while, as an anticipation of possible punishment, in the case of subjects with problems in that area this reaction is not observed to the same extent.

Although it does not have a specific target audience, the Iowa Gambling Task is usually used in cases of patients with head trauma, epilepsy, stroke or dementia (as long as orbitofrontal damage or symptoms indicate some kind of dysfunction in decision-making are observed), as well as in disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (in which doubt and difficulty in decision-making are common) or schizophrenia.

Bibliographic references:

  • Bechara, A., Damasio, H., Tranel, D., & Damasio A. R. (2005). The Iowa Gambling Task and the somatic marker hypothesis: some questions and answers. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(4) ,159-162.
  • Damasio, A.R. (1996). The somatic marker hypothesis and the possible functions of the prefrontal cortex. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 351, 1413-20.
  • García-Molina, A., Rodríguez, Rajo, P., Vendrell Gómez, P., Junqué i Platja, C. and Roig-Rovira, T. (2008). Orbitofrontal dysfunction in multiple sclerosis: Iowa Gambling Task. Psicothema, 20 (3): 445-448.
  • Li, X., Lu, Z.L., D’Argembeau, A., Ng, M. & Bechara, A. (2010). The Iowa Gambling Task in fMRI images. Hum Brain Mapp, 31: 410-423.