Gambling Psychology

While it may seem counter intuitive to the thinking and strategy often necessary for one to be successful in gambling and betting, especially in card and other table games, a new American study suggests that brain damage can actually sometimes give gamblers an advantage over players with undamaged brains.

The study, Investment Behavior and the Negative Side of Emotion, was published in the journal Psychological Science, and answers the following question: “Can dysfunction in neural system sub serving emotion lead, under certain circumstances, to more advantageous decisions?” The study was performed and written by five co-authors and led by Baba Shiv, a marketing professor at Stanford University, located in Palo Alto, California. The authors dive into explaining just how and why certain brain lesions might help a person to triumph in the face of adversity.

As part of the study, the team experimented with individuals that had abnormalities in specific brain regions: the amygdala, the orbitofrontal cortex, and the right insular or somatosensory cortex. Abnormalities in these parts of the brain can all serve as indicators of emotional problems or a reduced ability to handle one’s emotions.

Each of the individuals that participated in the study received a stack of play money and instructions to gamble on 20 rounds of coin tossing. The coin tossing game was similar to “heads you win, tails you lose,” with a few variations. The group that was studied was made up of both subjects with brain damage and those without brain damage, and each group received the same instructions and the same amount of money.

The participants in the study with brain damage consistently finished the gambling rounds with more money than their healthy-brained competitors. The researchers concluded that often, when individuals with healthy brains encounter a series of negative coin toss results, they become discouraged and increasingly cautious. However, gamblers with brains damaged in some way appeared to remain undaunted by a run of bad luck, which was quite often rewarded by a handsome payoff.

Incredibly, this effect of brain damage may even result in the ability to save one’s life. The study references a case of a man with ventromedial prefrontal damage driving under hazardous road conditions: “When other drivers reached an icy patch, they hit their brakes in panic, causing their vehicles to skid out of control, but the patient crossed the icy patch unperturbed, gently pulling away from a tailspin and driving ahead safely. The patient remembered the fact that not hitting the brakes was the appropriate behavior, and his lack of fear allowed him to perform optimally.”

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