Playing It Safe – The Fascinating Science Behind Risk-Taking

author by Rob McLauchlan on 07/09/2021

We have all faced those moments when it is time to make a big decision that could have significant consequences. Should I stick or twist? Should I take up that sports bet based on nothing but a hunch? Could that casino bonus or those free spins lead to a big win?

Of course, you might have also gambled in other areas. For instance, you may have taken a leap of faith on a new job or even started a relationship based on nothing but a gut feeling. Put simply, risk is a part of life, but it is interesting to consider how many of us handle it very differently.

Risk or caution

So, where do you fall when it comes to risk-taking and what do your gambling choices say about you? To consider this, it might be worth thinking about the traits that are associated with both cautious people and those who embrace a bit of risk.

Hire Success examined this from an employment perspective and made some observations about both personality types. For example, it stated that cautious people tend to go with what they know works, while they will also look before they leap. However, it added that they may be unsure about new approaches and could miss out on opportunities to grow. In contrast, the site described a risk-taker as someone who is willing to try new things. They also make decisions quickly and often on the spot, without consulting others first. Finally, risk-takers also tend to be able to accept failure and move on when something has not worked out.

Such ideas can easily be linked to the world of online casinos. After all, a more cautious player might stick to games they know or fully read up on titles before diving in. Alternatively, a risk-taker might choose a game on a whim and not get too downhearted if things do not go their way.

Lots of research

The fact that people can approach big decisions in such differing ways is fascinating, so it is no great surprise that plenty of research has been done into the area. Some intriguing findings have also emerged around how the brain works when we make risky decisions in areas like gambling.

Earlier this year, the University of Zurich released the findings of a study that found risk-taking was linked to certain brain features. Specific characteristics were found in a range of brain areas, including the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the ventral striatum. The university found the research ground-breaking in several ways, including that it was the first time risk-taking had been investigated with such a large sample.

According to Yale News in 2019, another study also found that several different brain regions are linked to decision-making. Researchers from Yale identified three circuits linked to the process – one related to good decisions, another to bad ones, and a third that stores memories. The research was undertaken with rats as they made choices linked to receiving rewards.

Changing choices

Another study actually used a gambling activity as it looked to consider risk-taking behaviour and why our choices might change from one moment to the next.

A Medical News Today article from 2019 outlines how researchers from University College London looked at resting brain activity and focused on the dopaminergic midbrain. They took MRI scans and asked participants to make a choice in the game when activity in the brain region was either high or low. They found that high activity in the dopaminergic midbrain was linked to safe choices, while low activity meant people were more likely to gamble.

The article added that the researchers were keen to explore the area further, while co-lead study author Benjamin Chew said the findings highlighted "the importance of taking time" when making a decision. After all, your outlook could quickly change.

An intriguing area

When you are playing games at online casino sites and thinking about whether to take that big gamble, you probably don't consider the various brain processes that are at play in that specific moment. However, scientists are clearly intrigued by the area, as it has been the central focus of plenty of studies even in just the last few years.

So, the next time you find yourself caught between taking a leap or playing it safe, why not take a moment and reflect on the incredible job your brain is doing to help you make the decision? It will be fascinating to see what else experts learn about this issue in the months and years ahead.