Encoding Context Determines Risky Choice

Christopher R. Madan, Marcia L. Spetch, Fernanda M.D.S. Machado, Alice Mason, Elliot A. Ludvig

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Citations (SciVal)


Both memory and choice are influenced by context: Memory is enhanced when encoding and retrieval contexts match, and choice is swayed by available options. Here, we assessed how context influences risky choice in an experience-based task in two main experiments (119 and 98 participants retained, respectively) and two additional experiments reported in the Supplemental Material available online (152 and 106 participants retained, respectively). Within a single session, we created two separate contexts by presenting blocks of trials in distinct backgrounds. Risky choices were context dependent; given the same choice, people chose differently depending on other outcomes experienced in that context. Choices reflected an overweighting of the most extreme outcomes within each local context rather than the global context of all outcomes. When tested in the nontrained context, people chose according to the context at encoding and not retrieval. In subsequent memory tests, people displayed biases specific to distinct contexts: Extreme outcomes from each context were more accessible and judged as more frequent. These results pose a challenge for theories of choice that rely on retrieval as guiding choice.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)743-754
Number of pages12
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number5
Early online date28 Apr 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 May 2021

Bibliographical note

This research was funded by grants from the Alberta Gambling Research Institute (to M. L. Spetch, E. A. Ludvig, and C. R. Madan), a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (to M. L. Spetch), and a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship (held by A. Mason).


  • behavioral economics
  • context
  • decisions from experience
  • encoding
  • memory
  • memory biases
  • open data
  • open materials
  • preregistered
  • risky decision-making

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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