Predicting risky choices

05 February 2014
Posted by Harriet Johnson.

Brain scans can predict whether you will take a risk.

Calcularisky brain patternsting risk is essential to life and adaptation; poor decisions can have irrevocable consequences. Waiting for the green man may make you miss your bus but it's better than being underneath one.

Understanding the neural processes in risk-taking may help to explain why some of us play it safe while others are more daring.

Publishing in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, Dr. Sarah Helfinstein from the University of Texas, describes how patterns in the brain can foretell whether an individual will take a risk or opt for a safe bet.

In the experiment people got points for each pump inflating a balloon, knowing that if it exploded all points would be lost. They were given the option to stop and 'cash out' or continue to pump and risk it all.

Using an MRI brain scanner, the researchers could see which regions of the brain were activated before the participants chose the safe or risky option.

Using this information they created a computer program to distinguish brain patterns of either risk-taking or safe responses, which could predict, with 71.8% accuracy, whether someone would take a gamble.

The brain regions that most successfully predicted choice included the anterior cingulate cortex, bilateral insula and parietal cortices. These regions are known to be involved in brain functions such as control, working memory and attention.

Interestingly, these regions were found to be more active preceding a safe response. This suggests that activating the control regions of the brain leads to safer choices and riskier endeavours may be due to a lack of control.

But how do these results relate to actual risk-taking, such as illegal drug use or driving without a seat belt? Dr Sarah Helfinstein states "people do have a tendency to take risk... study after study has shown that subjects who engage in more of these real-world risk behaviours will pump the balloon in the task more".

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