Anxiety and Gender Influence Reward-Related Processes in Children and Adolescents

Julia Dorfman, Dana Rosen, Daniel Pine, Monique Ernst

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Objective: This study examined the effects of pediatric anxiety and its interaction with gender on reward processes. Based on the purported greater sensitivity to risk in females than males and the propensity for risk aversion in anxiety, clinical anxiety and female gender were hypothesized to act synergistically in reducing reward sensitivity and increasing risk aversion in a pediatric population. Methods: This hypothesis was tested in two separate experiments using two independent samples. Both experiments compared clinically anxious with typically developing (TD) youth, 8-18 years. Experiment 1 used a decision-making task, the Wheel of Fortune task (WOF), to examine risk taking as a function of varying levels of risk and reward in 36 anxious and 61 TD youths. Experiment 2 used an incentive delay task, the Piñata task, to examine sensitivity to reward and motivation to work for a reward in 38 anxious and 30 TD youth. Percent bet, reaction time, and accuracy were analyzed as a function of gender and diagnostic group. Results: As hypothesized, anxiety was associated with reduced risk taking and sensitivity to reward. However, contrary to prediction, this effect was seen in males and not in females. These findings are consistent across both experiments. In experiment 1 (WOF), betting rate (i.e., risk taking) was significantly lower in anxious than in TD males (F[1;53] = 7.07, p = 0.01), whereas anxious females did not differ from TD females (F[1,42] = 1.2, p = 0.28). In experiment 2 (Piñata), anxiety impaired performance accuracy in males (F[1;36] = 8.39; p < 0.01) but not females (F[1;28] = 0.6; p = 0.445). Conclusions: Anxiety affected reward function differently in males and females. Contrary to hypothesis, anxious females behaved similarly to TD females on both tasks. However, anxious males were significantly more risk averse and less accurate than TD males. These findings suggest that therapeutic interventions for anxiety, which use manipulations of reward processes, should consider gender for optimal outcome.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)380-390
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of child and adolescent psychopharmacology
Issue number4
StatePublished - May 1 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Pharmacology (medical)


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