Lack of Self-Control Increases Risk-Taking Behavior, Study Says

By Paul Gaita 02/11/14

Researchers used a video game environment to determine choices made by participants on real-life health issues.

Taking chances. Shutterstock

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, UCLA, and other institutions have published a study which suggests that behavior with inherent risks – from driving without a seat belt to drug and alcohol use and engaging in unprotected sex – is not a product of our brain’s desire system, but rather the reduced efficacy of our self-control systems.

The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, examined 108 participants who played a video game called Balloon Analogue Risk Task, or BART, while inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner. The game asked subjects to make either a risky choice, inflating a balloon and earning a small amount of money or a safe one that stopped game play and allowed them to keep whatever money they had earned up to that point. The choices were based on real-life, health-relevant decisions which share the same structure, from deciding how many alcoholic beverages one can consume before driving or how many narcotic substances can be used before one develops a addiction.

Specialized software was then used to look for patterns of activity across the whole brain that would precede someone making either a risky or safe decision during the game. The software was then used to predict how subjects would make decisions in the game based solely on their brain activity. Based on that information, the software was able to accurately predict individual’s choices 71 percent of the time.

Researchers further discovered that when the software was focused on identifying specific regions of the brain associated with risk-taking, they found that the most accurate predictions were generated in the “executive control” regions, which oversee focus, working memory, and attention. These regions showed a distinct decrease in intensity when the subjects either decided to take a risk or even considered making a risky choice.

The next step for researchers will be to focus on external factors that may further weaken the control systems, including lack of sleep and drug or alcohol consumption. In doing so, they hope to apply their findings to a variety of issues, from addiction treatment to assessing the likelihood of a criminal committing another offense.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.