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Published November 5, 2014 | Published
Journal Article Open

The Effects of Incentive Framing on Performance Decrements for Large Monetary Outcomes: Behavioral and Neural Mechanisms


There is a nuanced interplay between the provision of monetary incentives and behavioral performance. Individuals' performance typically increases with increasing incentives only up to a point, after which larger incentives may result in decreases in performance, a phenomenon known as "choking." We investigated the influence of incentive framing on choking effects in humans: in one condition, participants performed a skilled motor task to obtain potential monetary gains; in another, participants performed the same task to avoid losing a monetary amount. In both the gain and loss frame, the degree of participants' behavioral loss aversion was correlated with their susceptibility to choking effects. However, the effects were markedly different in the gain and loss frames: individuals with higher loss aversion were susceptible to choking for large prospective gains and not susceptible to choking for large prospective losses, whereas individuals with low loss aversion choked for large prospective losses but not for large prospective gains. Activity in the ventral striatum was predictive of performance decrements in both the gain and loss frames. Moreover, a mediation analysis revealed that behavioral loss aversion hindered performance via the influence of ventral striatal activity on motor performance. Our findings indicate that the framing of an incentive has a profound effect on an individual's susceptibility to choking effects, which is contingent on their loss aversion. Furthermore, we demonstrate that the ventral striatum serves as an interface between incentive-driven motivation and instrumental action, regardless of whether incentives are framed in terms of potential losses or gains.

Additional Information

© 2014 the authors. Beginning six months after publication the Work will be made freely available to the public on SfN's website to copy, distribute, or display under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/). Received April 12, 2014; revised Aug. 28, 2014; accepted Sept. 20, 2014. This work was funded by National Science Foundation Grant 1062703 (J.O.D.), the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation (J.O.D.), grants from the Japan Science and Technology Agency/Core Research for Evolutional Science and Technology (S.S.), and the California Institute of Technology/Tamagawa Global Center of Excellence (S.S. and J.O.D.). We thank Daniel McNamee and Simon Dunne for helpful discussions and insights and Ralph Lee for his assistance. Author contributions: V.S.C., S.S., and J.P.O. designed research; V.S.C. performed research; V.S.C. analyzed data; V.S.C., S.S., and J.P.O. wrote the paper. The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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