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UCLA: How does your brain respond when you think about gambling or taking risks?

Should you leave your comfortable job for one that pays better but is less secure? Should you have a surgery that is likely to extend your life but poses some risk that you will not survive the operation? Should you invest in a risky startup company whose stock may soar even though you could lose your entire investment? In the Jan. 26 issue of the journal Science, UCLA psychologists present the first neuroscience research comparing how our brains evaluate the possibility of gaining versus losing when making risky decisions.

Participants in the study, mostly UCLA students in their 20s, were given $30 and then asked whether they would agree to each of more than 250 gambles in which they had a 50-50 chance of winning an amount of money or losing another amount of money. Would they, for example, agree to a coin toss in which they could win $30 but lose $20? While the 16 participants were considering the possible wagers, they were in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner at UCLA's Ahmanson–Lovelace Brain Mapping Center, where researchers studied their brain activity; the technique uses magnetic fields to spot active brain areas by telltale increases in blood oxygen.

For each question, the participants answered whether they would strongly agree to the gamble, weakly accept it, weakly refuse it or strongly reject it. Participants were not told whether they had won or lost until after they left the scanner; afterwards, the researchers randomly selected three of the gambles, and if the participants had previously agreed to accept those, the researchers flipped a coin and the participants either won or lost the money. What interested the researchers, however, was the activity of the brain's regions during the decision-making process, not the subject's reaction to winning or losing.

On average, participants needed to be offered a 50 percent chance of winning about $19 to risk losing $10, but that amount varied widely among the subjec
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Source:University of California - Los Angeles


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