Both real and hypothetical monetary rewards are widely used as reinforcers in risk taking and decision making studies. However, whether real and hypothetical monetary rewards modulate risk taking and decision making in the same manner remains controversial. In this study, we used event-related potentials (ERP) with a balloon analogue risk task (BART) paradigm to examine the effects of real and hypothetical monetary rewards on risk taking in the brain. Behavioral data showed reduced risk taking after negative feedback (money loss) during the BART with real rewards compared to those with hypothetical rewards, suggesting increased loss aversion with real monetary rewards. The ERP data demonstrated a larger feedback-related negativity (FRN) in response to money loss during risk taking with real rewards compared to those with hypothetical rewards, which may reflect greater prediction error or regret emotion after real monetary losses. These findings demonstrate differential effects of real versus hypothetical monetary rewards on risk taking behavior and brain activity, suggesting a caution when drawing conclusions about real choices from hypothetical studies of intended behavior, especially when large rewards are used. The results have implications for future utility of real and hypothetical monetary rewards in studies of risk taking and decision making.
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