Nonhuman Primates Satisfy Utility Maximization in Compliance with the Continuity Axiom of Expected Utility Theory.

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Ferrari-Toniolo, Simone  ORCID logo
Grabenhorst, Fabian  ORCID logo
Báez-Mendoza, Raymundo  ORCID logo

Expected Utility Theory (EUT), the first axiomatic theory of risky choice, describes choices as a utility maximization process: decision makers assign a subjective value (utility) to each choice option and choose the one with the highest utility. The continuity axiom, central to Expected Utility Theory and its modifications, is a necessary and sufficient condition for the definition of numerical utilities. The axiom requires decision makers to be indifferent between a gamble and a specific probabilistic combination of a more preferred and a less preferred gamble. While previous studies demonstrated that monkeys choose according to combinations of objective reward magnitude and probability, a concept-driven experimental approach for assessing the axiomatically defined conditions for maximizing utility by animals is missing. We experimentally tested the continuity axiom for a broad class of gamble types in 4 male rhesus macaque monkeys, showing that their choice behavior complied with the existence of a numerical utility measure as defined by the economic theory. We used the numerical quantity specified in the continuity axiom to characterize subjective preferences in a magnitude-probability space. This mapping highlighted a trade-off relation between reward magnitudes and probabilities, compatible with the existence of a utility function underlying subjective value computation. These results support the existence of a numerical utility function able to describe choices, allowing for the investigation of the neuronal substrates responsible for coding such rigorously defined quantity.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT A common assumption of several economic choice theories is that decisions result from the comparison of subjectively assigned values (utilities). This study demonstrated the compliance of monkey behavior with the continuity axiom of Expected Utility Theory, implying a subjective magnitude-probability trade-off relation, which supports the existence of numerical utility directly linked to the theoretical economic framework. We determined a numerical utility measure able to describe choices, which can serve as a correlate for the neuronal activity in the quest for brain structures and mechanisms guiding decisions.

continuity axiom, decision making, expected utility theory, reward risk, utility, Animals, Choice Behavior, Macaca mulatta, Male, Photic Stimulation, Primates, Psychomotor Performance, Reward
Journal Title
J Neurosci
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Society for Neuroscience
Wellcome Trust (095495/Z/11/Z)
European Research Council (293549)
Wellcome Trust (204811/Z/16/Z)
Wellcome Trust (206207/Z/17/Z)