August 26, 2005
Monkeys Prefer Gambling Risk To Sure Reward

Human gambling problems probably have very ancient roots.

DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke University Medical Center neurobiologists have pinpointed circuitry in the brains of monkeys that assesses the level of risk in a given action. Their findings -- gained from experiments in which they gave the monkeys a chance to gamble to receive juice rewards -- could give insights into why humans compulsively engage in risky behaviors, including gambling, unsafe sex, drug use and overeating.

The researchers, Michael Platt, Ph.D., and Allison McCoy, published their findings in the advanced online version of Nature Neuroscience, posted August 14, 2005. The research was sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, the EJLB Foundation, and the Klingenstein Foundation.

In their experiments, the researchers gave two male rhesus macaque monkeys chances to choose to look at either of two target lights on a screen. Looking at the "safe" target light yielded the same fruit juice reward each time. However, looking at the "risky" target light might yield a larger or smaller juice reward. The average juice reward delivered by looking at either target was the same.

To their surprise, the monkeys overwhelmingly preferred to gamble by looking at the risky target. This preference held, regardless of whether the scientists made the risky target reward more

variable, or whether the monkeys had received more or less fruit juice during the course of the day.

This result is another knock at the foundations of economic theories that assume perfect rational utility maximization by market actors.

"There was no rational reason why monkeys might prefer one of these options over the other because, according to the theory of expected value, they're identical," said Platt. The researchers also tested whether the monkeys were simply responding to the novelty of the risky target.

Well, the theory of expected value is wrong. Monkeys, like homo sapiens, are not homo economicus.

I wonder if manufacturers who sell products that are sometimes great and sometimes terrible attract repeat buyers who keep hoping for a repeat of that successful thrill.

"We wondered whether the monkeys preferred the risky target because the experiment was dull and boring, and they wanted the variability," said Platt. "But when we made the task more interesting by changing the color of the lights on each trial, the monkeys didn't care anything about it."

Monkeys, like many humans, like to gamble in games where the odds are stacked against them.

In fact, when the researchers made the average payoff for the risky target less than for the safe target, "we found that they still preferred the risky target," said Platt. "Basically these monkeys really liked to gamble. There was something intrinsically rewarding about choosing a target that offered a variable juice reward, as if the variability in rewards that they experienced was in itself rewarding."

Even when the researchers subjected the monkeys to a string of "losses," the high of a "win" appeared to keep them going, said Platt.

"If they got a big reward one time on the risky choice, but then continued to get small rewards, they would keep going back as if they were searching or waiting or hoping to get that big payoff. It seemed very, very similar to the experience of people who are compulsive gamblers. While it's always dangerous to anthropomorphize, it seemed as if these monkeys got a high out of getting a big reward that obliterated any memory of all the losses that they would experience following that big reward," said Platt.

The researchers inserted microelectrodes into the posterior cingulate cortex of the brain to further studied monkey gambling.

Confident that they had developed a valid animal model that would reveal insights into the brain mechanism for assessing risk, the researchers next explored the neural circuitry that governed that assessment. They threaded hair-thin microelectrodes into a brain region called the posterior cingulate cortex, which studies in humans and animals had implicated in the processing of information on rewards. They then measured the electrical activity of neurons in the region as they administered the same behavioral task to the monkeys.

"We found that the neurons behaved very similarly to the monkeys," said Platt. "That is, as we increased the riskiness of a target, the neurons' activity would go up in the same way the monkey's frequency of choosing that target would go up. It was amazing the degree to which the activity of these neurons paralleled the behavior of the monkeys. They looked like they were signaling, in fact, the monkeys' subjective valuation of that target," he said. Further analysis of the neuronal activity indicated that, indeed, the neurons were reflecting the risk value the monkeys placed on the target, rather than an after-the-fact response to the payoff.

Where does this sort of insight lead to? Picture in the future microelectrodes inserted into the brain to deliver jolts to cancel out the feeling that some gamble is worth taking.

While Platt and McCoy believed they have isolated one component of the neural machinery of risk, they do not believe they have mapped the entire circuitry.

"We don't think the posterior cingulate cortex is by any means the only area that's important for assessing risk, for deciding what's valuable and for actually making a choice based on that valuation," said Platt. "We think that this is just part of a whole circuit that's involved in that process." However, he said, pinpointing a key region involved in risk assessment will enable further studies to map that circuitry.

"It's going to be interesting to trace this circuitry to see which parts of the brain are signaling something about subjective utility and which parts of the brain are signaling information about true reward and punishment experiences," said Platt.

The animal study results can help map where to place electrodes to cancel out the desire to gamble (not that the researchers made such a claim).

He emphasized that such animal studies are a highly useful complement to human studies and genetic studies using mice. Neuroimaging studies in humans performing such tasks can identify brain regions involved in making decisions based on risk, he said.

"And then, using these animals, we can do electrophysiological studies that allow us to understand how the fundamental processing units of the brain -- single nerve cells -- actually process information about reward and risk and uncertainty; and how that information might contribute to the actual decision process that results in the monkey's choice," said Platt. What's more, he said, the monkey studies allow manipulation of the circuitry using drugs to determine how the circuitry might malfunction in human disorders.

The monkey model of desire to gamble also makes for a convenient lab model for the development of pharmaceutical agents to dampen down the gambling impulse.

"For example, it is believed that people who have low levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin might be more risk prone and impulsive," said Platt. "Disturbances in such neurotransmitter systems might be the basis of pathological conditions like pathological gambling, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. We can do pharmacological manipulation of the serotonin system in monkeys to see how it influences risk perception and risk preferences, and whether we see changes at the level of the single neurons that we're studying."

Plus, if monkeys can be genetically engineered to be less prone to gambling then some day the same will be doable with offspring genetic engineering.

What's more, said Platt, the studies with monkeys can guide studies in mice, in which scientists can make genetic alterations in the mice and study the behavioral effects of those alterations. Such studies could contribute to understanding of the genetic basis of compulsive behaviors and other such behavioral disorders.

With greater understanding comes greater powers to manipulate. How about a virus genetically engineered for surreptitious injection into a political opponent to make him a reckless gambler? Risks with illicit affairs or foreign policy adventures might help bring down the politician. Then again, if recent experience serves as a guide, perhaps not. Hmmm....

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 August 26 04:45 PM  Brain Economics

Nancy Lebovitz said at August 27, 2005 5:08 PM:

I bet overeating has little do with the gambling system--imho, overeating (aside from the hunger/satiety system possibly being broken) has to do with a preference for an extremely small but certain reward--the pleasure of eating, even though it's diminished by a lack of hunger.

Your piece seems to assume that a preference for risk is always bad with the possible exception of your mention of depression--depression probably has something to do with too little risk tolerance. It's possible that a society with sufficient tech would be doing benevolant increases of desire for risk as well as cutting back on compulsive risk-taking.

Which systems of economic thought assume perfectly rational action? If people need some risk to be happy, then it's impractical to always do the safest thing.

Patrick said at August 28, 2005 4:04 PM:

It reminds me of some research into crime and punishment (no I don't have a reference, there was a published article on it in a scientific american some years back) which looked at career criminals. It found the single biggest factor in getting someone into a life of crime, was escaping punishment the first time you were caught.

The theory was, if you got away with it, you were "rewarded" for your actions, and subsequent punishments did not act to change the pattern of behaviour. Exactly the same as the first big win over-riding the lessons from all the losses.

The problem was the definition of "escaping punishment".

To a shy, middle class kid, a few hours in a holding cell, followed by the shame and stress of a trial finishing with a terrifying "warning" from a judge was a definite punishment, and usually worked.

On the other hand, to an extroverted, fearless kid with relatives or friends who were already criminals, this was an exciting rite of passage that counted as "getting away with it".

Bob Badour said at September 1, 2005 7:57 AM:

Might I suggest the preference for risk comes directly from reproductive strategies and the willingness to risk rejection (male strategies) or the "risk of getting caught" (female strategies)?

The riskier choice involves feelings of anticipation and release that for me closely resemble feelings associated with courting. Perhaps my total lack of interest in gambling explains my childlessness at the age of 40.

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