When do traumatic experiences alter risk-taking behavior? A machine learning analysis of reports from refugees
Abstract: Exposure to traumatic stressors and subsequent trauma-related mental changes may alter a person’s risk-taking behavior. It is unclear whether this relationship depends on the specific types of traumatic experiences. Moreover, the association has never been tested in displaced individuals with substantial levels of traumatic experiences. The present study assessed risk-taking behavior in 56 displaced individuals by means of the balloon analogue risk task (BART). Exposure to traumatic events, symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder and depression were assessed by means of semi-structured interviews. Using a novel statistical approach (stochastic gradient boosting machines), we analyzed predictors of risk-taking behavior. Exposure to organized violence was associated with less risk-taking, as indicated by fewer adjusted pumps in the BART, as was the reported experience of physical abuse and neglect, emotional abuse, and peer violence in childhood. However, civil traumatic stressors, as well as other events during childhood were associated with lower risk taking. This suggests that the association between global risk-taking behavior and exposure to traumatic stress depends on the particular type of the stressors that have been experienced.
Results: All participants had experienced a minimum of one traumatic event, and the overall majority of 93 percent had been exposed to various forms and frequencies of organized violence. The mean exposure to types of torture and war events (vivo checklist) was 7.9 (SD = 6.5, median = 5); the mean exposure in the PSS-I event checklist was 3.3 (SD = 1.4, median = 3).
Childhood maltreatment measured by the KERF was generally high and had been experienced by 94% of participants, but the types presented a very heterogeneous pattern. Physical abuse was most common (85%; mean = 7.9, SD = 5.9, median = 6.6), followed by emotional abuse (65%; mean = 4.8, SD = 4.8, median = 3.3). Peer violence, emotional neglect, and physical neglect were experienced by half of the participants (54%, 52%, and 50%, respectively; mean peer violence = 3.8, SD = 3.9, median = 3.3; mean emotional neglect = 3.1, SD = 3.5, median = 3.3; mean physical neglect = 2.3, SD = 2.7, median = 1.7). The least frequent adverse experiences during childhood were witnessing an event (37%, mean = 2.5, SD = 3.7, median = 0) and sexual abuse (17%, mean = .4, SD = 1.4, median = 0).
Regarding PTSD diagnosis, 55% fulfilled criteria according to DSM-IV (PSS-I mean = 16.4, SD = 13.3, median = 18). The mean score in the PHQ-9 was 10.9 (SD = 7.8, median = 10), indicating a mild to intermediate severity of depression symptoms.
Risk behavior as measured by the BART had a large range between 3.1 and 77.5 adjusted pumps. The mean number of adjusted pumps was 33.0 (SD = 18.9, median = 28.2).
Conclusions: Altogether, the current study suggests that the experience of organized violence versus domestic violence differentially impacts subsequent performance on a laboratory test for risk-taking behavior such as the BART. Further research with larger sample sizes is needed in order to clarify the specific associations between types of exposure to traumatic events and risk-taking behavior.