Conditioning your brain to curb impulsiveness could open the way to treat addiction to gambling, drugs or alcohol as well as impulse-control disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a study says. The study evaluated 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, conducted by psychologists from the Universities of Exeter and Cardiff, participants were asked to repeatedly place a bet in a gambling task, the journal Psychological Science reports. 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, according to an Exeter statement. 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 lab. 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 10 to 15 percent, a small but statistically significant reduction, and that this effect lasted at least two hours.
Frederick Verbruggen from Exeter, who led the study, 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.
Chris Chambers of Cardiff University’s School of Psychology added: “These results suggest that our impulses are controlled by highly connected brain systems, reaching from the most basic motor actions to more complicated risky decisions.