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Sensitivity To Variability in Food Amount: Risk Aversion Is Seen in Discrete-Choice, But Not in Free-Choice, Trials

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A number of studies have observed that animals experiencing positive energy budgets tend to prefer alternatives offering constant amounts of food over those offering variable amounts of food, i.e. they tend to be risk averse. This observation, and the related finding that small animals experiencing negative energy budgets have been observed to prefer alternatives variable in food amount (i.e. to be risk prone), has often been explained by the hypothesis that animals choose the alternative with the highest expected utility. The present study examined if short-term differences in expected energy intake created by delays until when food is next available influence risk sensitivity in Norway rats (Rattus norvegicus). Norway rats were presented with choices between two feeding sites, one offering constant amounts of food, one offering variable amounts of food. In one treatment, rats could only sample one feeding site per daily trial (discrete-choice trials), in a second, they could sample both sites within a trial (free-choice trials), and in a third, they could sample the second-choice site after an imposed delay of 30 s. In the free-choice treatment, rats were indifferent to variability in food amount whereas in the discrete-choice treatment rats displayed a significant preference for the constant alternative. Therefore, the sensitivity the rats showed toward variability in food amount was influenced by the rats' expected energy intake in the period after visiting the first-choice patch. Rats in the free-choice with delay treatment displayed risk indifference just as those in the free-choice treatment did, however, indicating that differences in expected energy intake over a 30-s interval did not influence risk sensitivity.

Affiliations: 1: Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior, Indiana University, 402 North Park Ave., Bloomington, IN 47405, USA


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