Past trauma and future choices: Differences in discounting in low-income, urban African Americans

Carissa Van Den Berk-Clark, Joel Myerson, Leonard Green, Richard A. Grucza

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

6 Scopus citations


Background Exposure to traumatic events is surprisingly common, yet little is known about its effect on decision making beyond the fact that those with post-traumatic stress disorder are more likely to have substance-abuse problems. We examined the effects of exposure to severe trauma on decision making in low-income, urban African Americans, a group especially likely to have had such traumatic experiences.Method Participants completed three decision-making tasks that assessed the subjective value of delayed monetary rewards and payments and of probabilistic rewards. Trauma-exposed cases and controls were propensity-matched on demographic measures, treatment for psychological problems, and substance dependence.Results Trauma-exposed cases discounted the value of delayed rewards and delayed payments, but not probabilistic rewards, more steeply than controls. Surprisingly, given previous findings that suggested women are more affected by trauma when female and male participants' data were analyzed separately, only the male cases showed steeper delay discounting. Compared with nonalcoholic males who were not exposed to trauma, both severe trauma and alcohol-dependence produced significantly steeper discounting of delayed rewards.Conclusions The current study shows that exposure to severe trauma selectively affects fundamental decision-making processes. Only males were affected, and effects were observed only on discounting delayed outcomes (i.e. intertemporal choice) and not on discounting probabilistic outcomes (i.e. risky choice). These findings are the first to show significant differences in the effects of trauma on men's and women's decision making, and the selectivity of these effects has potentially important implications for treatment and also provides clues as to underlying mechanisms.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2702-2709
Number of pages8
JournalPsychological medicine
Issue number16
StatePublished - Dec 1 2018


  • African Americans
  • delayed outcomes
  • discounting
  • sex difference
  • trauma

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