Problem gamblers have difficulty assessing and adapting to high risk situations, according to new brain research.
Kyoto University researchers recently published the result of a new study, Deficit of state-dependent risk attitude modulation in gambling disorder, that used functional magnetic resonance imaging technology to identify lower levels of cognitive flexibility in the brains of individuals with gambling disorders.
The study examined the brains of 21 individuals who met the diagnostic criteria for pathological gambling along with 29 members of a control group. The participants were asked to complete a multi-step task that allowed them to earn credits toward an end goal by making successive gambling choices.
The problem gamblers were more likely to choose the riskier gambling option, even in “low-quota” situations when the optimal strategy was to take the lower-risk option, “suggesting a failure of optimizing risk attitude when they should avoid risk.”
The researchers believe this “deficit of state-dependent strategy optimization” could play a crucial role in gambling disorders, as repeatedly taking needless risks, even those involving small monetary losses, is a sure path to financial hardship.
Furthermore, the MRIs of problem gamblers’ brains showed diminished functioning of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain that is heavily implicated in cognitive flexibility.
Study author Hidehiko Takahashi noted that problem gamblers were known to have “higher levels of mood and anxiety disorders” and thus their excessive gambling may not reflect a pursuit of pleasure “but rather an inability to properly recognize risk and adapt accordingly.”
The study is the latest in a growing body of research that supports the theory that problem gamblers are born not made, and that they tend to make riskier choices in many aspects of their lives, not just gambling. It also helps explain why global problem gambling rates have remained more or less constant over the years despite expanding gambling options, and even decline as a population adapts to its new entertainment options.