Brain Damage May Be an Advantage for Gamblers

by Alice Shirrell Kaswell, Improbable Research Staff

Brain damage has its disadvantages, but an American study suggests that it can sometimes give gamblers a winning edge. The researchers take a flier at explaining how and why certain brain lesions might, in some circumstances, help a person triumph over others or over adversity.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, renders its tantalizing, juicy question into lofty academese. The five co-authors, led by Baba Shiv, a marketing professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, ask: “Can dysfunction in neural systems subserving emotion lead, under certain circumstances, to more advantageous decisions?”

The team experimented with people who had abnormalities in the amygdala, the orbitofrontal cortex, and the right insular or somatosensory cortex. Medically, such abnormalities can be a sign that something’s amiss in how the person handles emotions (and/or vice-versa, the other being a sign of the one).

Each brain-damaged person got a wad of play money and instructions to gamble on 20 rounds of coin tossing (heads-you-win/tails-you-lose, with some added twists). Other people, who had no such brain lesions, got the same amount of money, and the same gambling instructions.

(Image credit: Flickr user John Wardell)

The brain-damaged gamblers pretty consistently ended up with more money than their healthier-brained competitors. The researchers speculate that when “normal” gamblers encounter a run of unhappy coin toss results, they get discouraged and become cautious—perhaps too cautions.

Not so the people with brain lesion–induced emotional dysfunction. Encountering a run of bad luck, they plunge on, undaunted, and then enjoy a relatively handsome payoff. At least sometimes.

The study notes that this brain damage side-effect might occasionally even save someone’s life.

They cite the case of a man with ventromedial prefrontal damage who was 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.”

Lead author Baba Shiv has an eye for nonstandard ways of exploring the weird morass that is human behavior. He sometimes teaches a course called “The Frinky Science of the Mind.” In 2008 he and three colleagues were awarded an Ig Nobel Prize for demonstrating that expensive fake medicine is more effective than cheap fake medicine.

(Image credit: Flickr user Laura Taylor)

Investment Behavior and the Negative Side of Emotion,” Baba Shiv, George Loewenstein, Antoine Bechara, Hanna Damasio, and Antonio R. Damasio, Psychological Science, vol. 16, no. 6, June 2005, pp. 435–9.

(Title image generated via RedKid)


This article is republished with permission from the September-October 2009 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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Hahahaha, classical probability law fail. What you are actually stating is that chances of heads after 5 tails is over 50% and only a person with brain damage is persistent enough to be still willing to gamble. Complete nonsens.
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