Background: Animals' attitudes to risk are profoundly influenced by metabolic state (hunger and baseline energy stores). Specifically, animals often express a preference for risky (more variable) food sources when below a metabolic reference point (hungry), and safe (less variable) food sources when sated. Circulating hormones report the status of energy reserves and acute nutrient intake to widespread targets in the central nervous system that regulate feeding behaviour, including brain regions strongly implicated in risk and reward based decision-making in humans. Despite this, physiological influences per se have not been considered previously to influence economic decisions in humans. We hypothesised that baseline metabolic reserves and alterations in metabolic state would systematically modulate decision-making and financial risk-taking in humans.
Methodology/principal findings: We used a controlled feeding manipulation and assayed decision-making preferences across different metabolic states following a meal. To elicit risk-preference, we presented a sequence of 200 paired lotteries, subjects' task being to select their preferred option from each pair. We also measured prandial suppression of circulating acyl-ghrelin (a centrally-acting orexigenic hormone signalling acute nutrient intake), and circulating leptin levels (providing an assay of energy reserves). We show both immediate and delayed effects on risky decision-making following a meal, and that these changes correlate with an individual's baseline leptin and changes in acyl-ghrelin levels respectively.
Conclusions/significance: We show that human risk preferences are exquisitely sensitive to current metabolic state, in a direction consistent with ecological models of feeding behaviour but not predicted by normative economic theory. These substantive effects of state changes on economic decisions perhaps reflect shared evolutionarily conserved neurobiological mechanisms. We suggest that this sensitivity in human risk-preference to current metabolic state has significant implications for both real-world economic transactions and for aberrant decision-making in eating disorders and obesity.