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Two monkeys provide insight on risk-taking aspect of gambling


8 Oct 2018

Any fairly regular gambler will have undoubtedly found themselves in specific situations where they would have to carry out a type of risk assessment on their bet.

Many football accumulators are placed every weekend, where a person may require a set number of teams to win for the bet to be successful.

Last year, one substantial windfall was achieved when a £1 bet on a 12-team football multiple was landed and paid out in excess of £500,000.

If this bet was placed online, many sports bookmakers provide punters with the opportunity to cash out their bets throughout its development.

So if with 10 minutes remaining in all 12 matches, 11 of the teams were winning, the gambler would have the option of cashing out for a lesser amount. Would you have cashed out for £75k in such a position?

This is where a person’s willingness to gamble comes into play. The more risk averse will take the guaranteed money.

Meanwhile, the preference of the bigger risk seeker will be to turn down the sure outcome and instead gamble on the more considerable sum, despite its lower expected value of success.

In terms of which people take the risk and which decide to play it safe, the general thought is that this is a personality trait.

However, some recent research involving two monkeys has suggested that this may not be the case.

The computer game

The study used two monkeys and a computer game. At its core the game gave the monkeys two options.

By selecting one of the options, each monkey was guaranteeing itself a small amount of juice.

If they opted for the alternate option, the monkey was taking a risk. Either they would receive lots more juice than in option one, or they would receive no juice.

Each monkey made their decision in every round by moving their eyes towards their chosen option.

The research can be found in the journal Current Biology, with Veit Stuphorn, an author of the study and an associate professor at Johns Hopkins University, remarking: “They’re always tempted to go for it. They’re going for the big win every single time.”

This is despite the fact that the monkeys would have secured more juice if taking the guaranteed option in each round.

The second test

The team of researchers believed that the part of the brain in the prefrontal cortex that is associated with eye movements was a reason for this, given how active the brain cells in this area became following a win.

To test this theory, the researchers ran a second test, but this time when this section of the brain had been temporarily inactivated.

On this occasion, the results were flipped, with the monkeys feeling less risky than was previously the case.

What to make of the research

There is clear evidence that by tampering with the brain, it is possible to influence a person’s willingness to take a risk.

However, in the case of this research, all that is being risked is a small amount of juice.

In the same way, it’s much easier for a poker player to call a pre-flop all-in bet with pocket nines in an online freeroll, in comparison to the same situation at the World Series Of Poker tournament when millions are at stake.

Equally a person playing blackjack may be more risk averse to hitting on 17 when playing £100 a hand than they would be if only having £5 in the betting circle.

Also, this research specifically focused on the area of the brain linked with eye movements. But would the results be the same if the movement was different?

Slots players need to push buttons to decide whether to cash out or continue staking.

Furthermore, people can take risks in all different ways. Deciding whether to take another blackjack card or abseil down a mountain are nothing like the same, but both have risks attached to them.

Someone who is cautious in one of these situations may be a daredevil in the other.

What this means for your gambling

It seems that we can rely on our brains to adjust to different situations when it comes to taking risks.

So in the same way that batsmen in cricket are told to play every ball on its merits, when it comes to gambling, sound advice may be to consider each position of risk separately.

Assess the size of your stake, how much you are prepared to lose, the amount of your possible win and consider your pot odds.

Then decide if the gamble is a risk worth taking. If the gamble involves eye movements, then it is likely that at least one part of your brain will be encouraging you to take the punt.