New research from psychologists at the Universities of Exeter and Cardiff shows that people can train their brains to become less impulsive, resulting in less risk-taking during gambling. The research could pave the way for new treatments for people with addictions to gambling, drugs or alcohol as well as impulse-control disorders, such as ADHD.
Published today (14 June 2012), in the journal Psychological Science, the study assessed whether asking people to stop making simple movements while in a simulated gambling situation affected how risky or cautious they were when betting.
In a first experiment, participants were asked to repeatedly place a bet in a gambling task. The participants were all students, in good health. They were presented with safe options (low gain, high probability) and more risky options (high gain, low probability), and were asked to indicate their choice by pressing a key on a computer keyboard. The researchers examined the preference for the safer options. Sometimes, the gambling task was combined with an 'inhibition task', similar to those used to study impulse control in the laboratory. Participants had to withhold their choice response when a 'stop' signal was presented, forcing them to stop themselves from pressing a key on the keyboard.
When participants occasionally had to stop their choice response, they slowed down, and importantly, became more cautious in the amount of money they bet each time. This suggests that becoming more cautious about simple movements reduces the tendency to make risky monetary decisions.
In the second and third experiments, the researchers examined whether training people to stop hand responses to arbitrary stimuli presented on a computer screen would also have longer-term effects on gambling. They found that a short period of inhibition training reduced gambling by ten to fifteen per cent, a small but statistically significant reduction, and that this effect lasted at least two hours.
Lead researcher, Dr Frederick Verbruggen of the University of Exeter said: "Our research shows that by training themselves to stop simple hand movements, people can also learn to control their decision-making processes to avoid placing risky bets.