Remember When: How Cues May Be Influencing Your Decisions

Elliot A. Ludvig, Cristopher R. Madan, and Marcia L. Spetch, Priming Memories of Past Wins Induces Risk Seeking, The Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Do memories determine our decisions? Of course! Both good and bad experiences can dictate our future choices. According to a recent study in The Journal of Experimental Psychology, our risk preference can be influenced by cues that are associated with past memories.

Would you rather receive fifty dollars fanmanor have a 50% chance at a hundred dollars? According to previous research, you probably picked the fifty dollars. Researchers studying decision-making insist that humans prefer certainty, rather than risk [1]. There are many theories detailing how we navigate decisions, which include ranking outcomes or listing pros and cons [2]. All models, however, suggest that we integrate memory and situational information to guide our choices.

These theories, while informative, do not account for the possibility that cues may influence memory, and therefore decision-making. Could these innocuous sounds, sights, and smells influence how risky we are? A group of researchers explored the way cues might unconsciously remind us of past experiences, and sway our decisions. In this study, researchers introduced participants to cues, associated with certain values. Before each test trial, the researchers flashed one of these cues. The participants were then asked to select between a safe option and a riskier option.

The study found that higher valued cues made participants riskier than when the lower cues were shown. The results of this study support the idea that cues are powerful. That should be no surprise. You probably notice that the sight and smell of food inspires cravings. That is because those cues remind us of a reward that we want, or at least unconsciously want. This study showed that cues alone are powerful enough to control our decisions by evoking the possibility of reward.

Does that mean cues can influence our choices without our cognitive awareness? Well, yes. Stimuli, such as sights and sounds, can recall previous positive outcomes and, with exposure, those cues may increase risk seeking. For example, imagine every time you win a casino game, you hear a bell. Overtime, that slotswinbell becomes inseparable from the winning itself. The sound alone can push you to gamble more, even when losing. Casinos may not understand the science, but they employ this phenomenon. They pair cues, such as flashing lights and sounds, with winning outcomes. When gamblers see these cues, this study claims that they make riskier decisions due to an unconscious memory bias.

So, why is this study important? Studying risk seeking can inform our understanding of gambling addiction, though it cannot incorporate all the components of gambling addiction, specifically loss. In this study, participants weighed a positive value against a smaller positive value, which some researchers claim cannot model how losing can affect gamblers. “The study of gambling addiction will depend upon finding accurate animal models of risk and loss, and integrating those with improved models of addiction*,” said lead author, Elliot Ludvig, in a recent interview [3]. However, for now we have another important piece of information about the power that cues gain, which is integral for understanding addiction as a complex disorder.

Acknowledgements: Ian Rice (friend), Carli Poisson (friend and classmate), Karen Gelernt (mother), Moshe Ben-Ezra (father), Sara Ben-Ezra (sister), Isabel Fattal (friend), Jamie Hom (Person in Motivation and Reward who read my paper)



  1. Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1979). Prospect theory: An analysis of decision under risk. Econometrica, 47, 263–292. 10.2307/1914185
  2. Stewart, N., Chater, N., & Brown, G. D. A. (2006). Decision by sampling. Cognitive Psychology, 53, 1–26. .2005.10.003
  3. This is a fake quote from a fake interview with the real author of this paper. I based this off the conversation you (Robinson) and I had about loss and gambling.


  1. Chauvin Y. (photographer). Internet banking with a business man happy [digital image]. Retrieved from
  2. Jeremiah (photographer). Casino [digital image]. Retrieved from