Ambiguity aversion in rhesus macaques

Benjamin Y. Hayden, Sarah R. Heilbronner, Michael L. Platt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

55 Scopus citations


People generally prefer risky options, which have fully specified outcome probabilities, to ambiguous options, which have unspecified probabilities. This preference, formalized in economics, is strong enough that people will reliably prefer a risky option to an ambiguous option with a greater expected value. Explanations for ambiguity aversion often invoke uniquely human faculties like language, self-justification, or a desire to avoid public embarrassment. Challenging these ideas, here we demonstrate that a preference for unambiguous options is shared with rhesus macaques. We trained four monkeys to choose between pairs of options that both offered explicitly cued probabilities of large and small juice outcomes. We then introduced occasional trials where one of the options was obscured and examined their resulting preferences; we ran humans in a parallel experiment on a nearly identical task. We found that monkeys reliably preferred risky options to ambiguous ones, even when this bias was costly, closely matching the behavior of humans in the analogous task. Notably, ambiguity aversion varied parametrically with the extent of ambiguity. As expected, ambiguity aversion gradually declined as monkeys learned the underlying probability distribution of rewards. These data indicate that ambiguity aversion reflects fundamental cognitive biases shared with other animals rather than uniquely human factors guiding decisions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberArticle 166
JournalFrontiers in Neuroscience
Issue numberSEP
StatePublished - 2010


  • Ambiguity
  • Macaque
  • Risk
  • Risk aversion
  • Risk seeking
  • Uncertainty


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