Decision-making contributes to what and how much we consume, and deficits in decision-making have been associated with increased weight status in children. Nevertheless, the relationships between cognitive and affective processes underlying decision-making (i.e., decision-making processes) and laboratory food intake are unclear. We used data from a four-session, within-subjects laboratory study to investigate the relationships between decision-making processes, food intake, and weight status in 70 children 7-to-11-years-old. Decision-making was assessed with the Hungry Donkey Task (HDT), a child-friendly task where children make selections with unknown reward outcomes. Food intake was measured with three paradigms: (1) a standard ad libitum meal, (2) an eating in the absence of hunger (EAH) protocol, and (3) a palatable buffet meal. Individual differences related to decision-making processes during the HDT were quantified with a reinforcement learning model. Path analyses were used to test whether decision-making processes that contribute to children’s (a) expected value of a choice and (b) tendency to perseverate (i.e., repeatedly make the same choice) were indirectly associated with weight status through their effects on intake (kcal). Results revealed that increases in the tendency to perseverate after a gain outcome were positively associated with intake at all three paradigms and indirectly associated with higher weight status through intake at both the standard and buffet meals. Increases in the tendency to perseverate after a loss outcome were positively associated with EAH, but only in children whose tendency to perseverate persistedacross trials. Results suggest that decision-making processes that shape children’s tendencies to repeat a behavior (i.e., perseverate) are related to laboratory energy intake across multiple eating paradigms. Children who are more likely to repeat a choice after a positive outcome have a tendency to eat more at laboratory meals. If this generalizes to contexts outside the laboratory, these children may be susceptible to obesity. By using a reinforcement learning model not previously applied to the study of eating behaviors, this study elucidated potential determinants of excess energy intake in children, which may be useful for the development of childhood obesity interventions.
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