The somatic-marker hypothesis: how decision are made in the face of an uncertain outcome

| December 10, 2012


Swift decisions are made by an individual when they are in a situation  where they face the uncertainty about whether their  decisions will lead to benefit or harm.  The somatic marker hypothesis attempts to explain how decisions are made in the face of an uncertain outcome, this hypothesis’ central theological affirmation is that decisions are made on a neurobiological level and our emotions are a fundamental aide when decisions are made.  This theory claims emotions contribute when an individual has to make a swift decision depending on their circumstances, this may be in the form of bodily states, which arise during the deliberation of future consequences and that mark different options of behavior as having the potential to be either advantageous or disadvantageous.  This process involves interplay between neural systems that trigger emotional bodily states and neural systems that are the map of these emotions or bodily states (Carter, 2004).

The somatic marker hypothesis, developed by Damasio (1999), has been outstanding at the time to understand the role of emotion in decision-making arises that the consequences of a decision there is a certain emotional reaction that is subjective, meaning it can “experience”, while somatic, i.e. reactions resulting in muscle, neuroendocrine and neurophysiological. This emotional response in turn can be associated with impact, whether negative or positive stimuli or sets of defining a situation, that they repeat certain constancy over time and causing the response.

This mechanism of association is that it produces what Damasio calls somatic marker” that is defined as “a body change that reflects an emotional state, whether positive or negative, can influence the decisions taken at one time. So it is suggested that the emotional reaction goes from being a mere consequence, for example, a negative decision to influence the decision itself, allowing the anticipation of consequences and guiding the final decision process (Damasio, 1999).

In this regard it is stated that somatic markers can provide unconscious signals that “facilitate and contribute to decision making” even without the subjects may explain why their strategy. Iowa Gambling Task The way in which this occurs has been studied extensively in the test IGT (Iowa Gambling Task), which is that a subject must choose from four stacks of cards, depending on this money get symbolic rewards and punishments so that long-term two piles ride to lose while the other two to win. These tests have been conducted mostly through the study of changes in electrodermal activity (levels and skin conductance response) produced by the decision-making situation (Damasio, 1991). The work of Bechara et al (1996) have demonstrated that normal subjects show greater skin conductance responses when the consequences of their choices – gains or losses – are higher.  However, the greatest asset of this research lays in finding electroheat anticipatory responses, i.e. appeared just before the subjects made the choice. The researchers found that subjects who chose the piles of cards with higher earnings were more conductance response before choosing disadvantageous decks (with lower earnings), which has been interpreted as an anticipatory bodily signal that guides the avoid the subject deck. You showed that anticipatory skin conductance responses of lower intensity were associated with the choice of letters so disadvantageous to poorer on the task, a situation that has also occurred in individuals with prefrontal lesions. These findings and those of other studies such as those carried out by Damasio (1997, 1998 and 2005), are located in the prefrontal cortex, especially the ventromedial orbitofrontal portion, the “key area” of making decisions, this already it is at this point that assesses the implications of long-term events, thanks to the integration of somatic states to information about the situation and stored memories of similar situations.    These findings have supported the idea that there are anticipatory somatic responses (and reforzadazas supported by the experience) that will guide future behavior and the choices that are made in similar situations, positioning somatic markers as a relevant variable to consider when assess decision-making and the relationship between it and the emotion. This also is reinforced by the differences between electrodermal responses of people who achieve optimal performance in the development of tasks and who achieve poor results and also with people with neurological damage in the brain areas involved in these responses (Cavedini, 2002).

Decisions made in the face of an uncertain outcome

Imagine yourself as the owner of a large company, probably under the influence of high ratio, i.e. the conception of common sense tell you that the formal logic will provide the best possible solution to any problem that may occur.

Against this background that is under the influence of the rationalist it is argued that for best results should be kept out emotions. In other words, the rational procedure must get rid of passion.

The high ratio process is carried out by separation of the different assumptions for decision making, making a cost / benefit of each of them. For example, you as the owner of a large company consider the consequences of each option at different points and weigh the expected future losses and gains that they can carry.

However, if rationality is the only strategy they have, in the best case, your decision to control a large company, will take an excessively long time (due to the analysis of the cases) or even making the decision would not be carried out by the delay in time, and that comparisons between the consultations of the debits and credits can be infinite (Lambie, 2002).

Thus, if the calculation is purely rational and operates your mind, you might choose the wrong way and live to regret the mistake, or just stop trying out of frustration (Lang, 1994).

To address this possible error we use the somatic marker strategy. That is, before applying any analysis of cost-benefit assumptions and before reasoning to solve the problem, the somatic marker functions as an automatic alarm signal which says attention to the danger that lies ahead if you choose the option that leads this result.

This warning comes from the perception of the person of a change in your body produce pleasant or unpleasant feeling in the womb, according to the expected outcome, positive or negative.

This signal automatically protects us from future losses, and allows us to choose from a smaller number of alternatives, allowing us to save time in decision making. What is indisputable is that the somatic marker is not sufficient for normal decision making in humans because then the same will be a thought process and final selection. But in turn, is also indisputable that somatic markers increase accuracy and efficiency of the decision process (Rolls, 1999).

These somatic markers are a case of feelings generated from secondary emotions, i.e. emotions linked by learning and experience that allow us to predict future outcomes of certain scenarios.

In short, being responsible for a large company, the high ratio will not be a good companion in their decision making because the number of cases to review is huge in their day to day. Therefore, he must resort to the somatic marker which will provide automatic detection of the components of the course is more likely to be relevant (Rolls, 1997).

According to Tirapu-Ustárroz, et al, (2001) when it comes to executive or decision-making we assume that decides has knowledge of the situation requiring a decision about the options of action and the immediate and future consequences each of these options. In this sense, the somatic marker force attention to the consequences that may lead a particular action, functioning as an automatic alarm signal to the inadequacy of any decision. This signal basically emotional, can lead to immediately reject a course of action, which would lead us to other alternatives. Somatic markers intersect with executive functions in the field of discussion, since they are primarily in making decisions and highlight some other options.

Anticipating possible consequences of a choice generates emotion-related somatic responses that guide decision-making process. The responses arising from the anticipation of the possible consequences of an election have their origin in the emotional reaction produced by the decisions taken earlier. In this context, the emotional response is the subjective reaction and somatic-vegetative-motor or the individual to an event, such as positive or negative consequences of a decision (Cavedini, 2002). According to the somatic marker hypothesis, the damage to the ventromedial area results in an inability to elicit emotional processing these signals or generating a “myopia for the future”, i.e. an inability to anticipate the possible consequences of particular courses of action. The “future myopia”, as expressed by Damasio (1997), caused by lesions of the prefrontal region of the brain has its counterpart in the condition of those who constantly disrupts normal feelings taking narcotics or large amounts of alcohol.

Thus, compared to specific situations, the body/mind gives a signal because of their experience. That is, our body along its ontogeny is accumulating multiple position type associations / somatic state, so you have a record with its history of variations based on these situations (Damasio, 1996). Faced with new experiences, that record will find a similar situation has been taken previously. Thus, if the current situation is associated with previous experience who has had a negative result, the MS “try” to reject that course of action. If, however, the new situation is linked with a positive previous experience, to forecast that the decision will be successful, the MS promote it.

The body gives a signal as opposed to certain stimuli that can reduce our response field and streamline our processes of decision making and reasoning. It is as if our body speaks to us through certain somatic states, related to specific stimuli through behavioural learning of those responses (and their respective physiological pattern) more associated with successful outcomes (Damasio, 1999).

The somatic marker gets force attention to the negative outcome that conduct a particular action, and works as an alarm signal Automatic says attention to the danger that lays ahead if you choose the option that leads to this result. The signal can lead us to reject, immediately, course of action, which will choose between alternatives. The idea of the somatic marker is compatible with the notion that effective personal and social behavior requires that individuals form “Theories” right of own mind and the minds of others. These theories can predict what theories are forming others our own mind (Rolls, 1999). The detail and accuracy of these predictions are, essential as we face a critical decision in a situation social. In terms of the prefrontal cortices, we suggest that somatic markers, operating in the bio field and aligned with the social sector affect the operation of attention and working memory within the dorsolateral sector, sector of operations dependent on other. This leaves open the possibility that the markers Somatic also influence attention and working memory within own regulator, and social context. In other words, in normal individuals somatic markers that arise from the activation of a contingency amplify specific attention and working memory across the system cognitive (Lambie, 2002).



  • Bechara, A., Damasio, A.R., Damasio, H. & Anderson, S.W. (1994). Insensitivity to future
  • consequences following damage to human prefrontal cortex. Cognition, 50, 7–12.
  • Cannon, W.B., (1997). The James–Lange theory of emotions: a critical  examination and an
  • alternative theory. American Journal of Psychology  39, 106–124.
  • Carter, S., Smith-Pasqualini, M.C., 2004. Stronger autonomic response  accompanies better
  • learning: a test of Damasio’s somatic marker  hypothesis. Cognition and Emotion 18 (7), 901
  • 911.
  • Damasio, A.R. (1994). Descartes’ Error: emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York:
  • Grosset/Putnam.
  • Damasio, A.R. (1996) The Somatic marker hypothesis and the possible functions of the
  • prefrontal cortex
  • Damasio, A.R. (1999). The feeling of what happens. New York: Harcourt-Brace & Company.
  • Damasio, A.R., Tranel, D. & Damasio, H. (1991). “Somatic markers and the guidance of
  • behaviour: theory and preliminary testing” (pp. 217–229). In H.S. Levin, H.M. Eisenberg & A.L.
  • Benton (Eds.). Frontal lobe function and dysfunction. New York: Oxford University Press
  • Rolls, E.T. (1997). “Consciousness in neural networks”. Neural Networks, 10, 1227–1240.
  • Rolls, E.T. (1999). The brain and emotion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Cavedini, P., Riboldi, G., D’Annucci, A., Belotti, P., Cisima, M., Bellodi,  L., 2002a. Decision
  • making heterogeneity in obsessive compulsive  disorder: ventromedial prefrontal cortex function
  • predicts different  treatment outcomes. Neuropsychologia 40, 205–211.
  • Cavedini, P., Riboldi, G., Keller, R., D’Annucci, A., Bellodi, L., 2002b.  Frontal lobe
  • dysfunction in pathological gambling patients. Biological  Psychiatry 51 (4), 334–341.
  • Lambie, J.A., Marcel, A.J., 2002. Consciousness and the varieties of  emotion experience: A
  • theoretical framework. Psychological Review  109 (2), 219–259.
  • Lang, P.J., 1994. The varieties of emotional experience: a meditation on  James-Lange theory.
  • Psychological Review 101 (2) 211–221.  Lange, C., 1885. The mechanism of the emotions. In:
  • Dunlap, E. (Ed.)







Tags: decision-making, essay on outcome, free essay, outcome, outcome essay, somatic decisions, somatic-marker, somatic-marker hypothesis, swift decisions, uncertain outcomes

Category: Free Essays, Psychology