The attraction effect modulates reward prediction errors and intertemporal choices

Sebastian Gluth, Jared M. Hotaling, Jörg Rieskamp

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Classical economic theory contends that the utility of a choice option should be independent of other options. This view is challenged by the attraction effect, in which the relative preference between two options is altered by the addition of a third, asymmetrically dominated option. Here, we leveraged the attraction effect in the context of intertemporal choices to test whether both decisions and reward prediction errors (RPE) in the absence of choice violate the independence of irrelevant alternatives principle. We first demonstrate that intertemporal decision making is prone to the attraction effect in humans. In an independent group of participants, we then investigated how this affects the neural and behavioral valuation of outcomes using a novel intertemporal lottery task and fMRI. Participants’ behavioral responses (i.e., satisfaction ratings) were modulated systematically by the attraction effect and this modulation was correlated across participants with the respective change of the RPE signal in the nucleus accumbens. Furthermore, we show that, because exponential and hyperbolic discounting models are unable to account for the attraction effect, recently proposed sequential sampling models might be more appropriate to describe intertemporal choices. Our findings demonstrate for the first time that the attraction effect modulates subjective valuation even in the absence of choice. The findings also challenge the prospect of using neuroscientific methods to measure utility in a context-free manner and have important implications for theories of reinforcement learning and delay discounting.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)371-382
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 11 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • Asymmetric dominance
  • Cognitive modeling
  • Delay discounting
  • fMRI
  • Nucleus accumbens
  • Value-based decision making

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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