Background Although conduct disorder (CD) is associated with an increased susceptibility to substance use disorders, little is known about decision-making processes or reward mechanisms in CD. This study investigated decision making under varying motivational conditions in CD. Methods Performances on the Risky Choice Task (RCT) and the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST) were assessed in 156 adolescents (84 control subjects, 34 with adolescence-onset CD, and 38 with early-onset CD). The RCT was performed twice, once under normal motivational conditions and once under conditions of increased motivation and psychosocial stress. Results Increased motivation and stress led to more cautious decision making and changes in framing effects on the RCT in all groups, although such effects were least pronounced in the early-onset CD group. Participants from both CD subgroups selected the risky choice more frequently than control subjects. Under normal motivational conditions, early-onset CD participants chose the risky choice more frequently in trials occurring after small gains, relative to control subjects and adolescence-onset CD participants. Following adjustment for IQ differences, the groups did not differ significantly in terms of WCST performance. Conclusions Differences in decision making between control subjects and individuals with CD suggest that the balance between sensitivity to reward and punishment is shifted in this disorder, particularly the early-onset form. Our data on modulation of decision making according to previous outcomes suggest altered reward mechanisms in early-onset CD. The WCST data suggest that impairments in global executive function do not underlie altered decision making in CD.