Control Yourself! Inhibiting Physical Action Cuts Risky Gambling and Drinking

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Want to gamble smarter, make less risky financial decisions or cut down on your drinking? Practice stopping yourself midway through a simple physical movement, new research suggests.

Although controlling risky impulses may seem unrelated to inhibiting physical movements, research increasingly finds that the brain processes both situations similarly. That means that getting better at one type of choice is associated with improvements in the other. The connection could have important implications for the treatment of all types of addictive behaviors — and perhaps for decision-makers on Wall Street as well.

To examine the association, researchers led by Frederick Verbruggen at the University of Exeter in England conducted three experiments, studying people playing a gambling video game. In the first experiment, 44 people were paid about $10 an hour to play the game, plus whatever money they won. Participants were given a choice of betting on one of six rising columns, each representing a different sum of money. The greater the potential gain, the lower the odds of winning — so betting on larger amounts was the riskier move, since it could also lead to greater losses. The players had to make their choices within a small window of time, as the bars rose on the screen.

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One group of people was instructed to press an additional key if the tops of the bars turned black, which happened in about one-third of cases. The other players had to prevent themselves from hitting any keys — which was the opposite of what they had to do the rest of the time — when the black color appeared at the top of the bars.

The researchers found that participants who had to stop themselves from hitting a key were 10% to 15% less likely to make risky bets. And in two similar experiments — including one in which the inhibition task occurred two hours before the gambling — the same results were found.

The authors write, “We propose that increased motor cautiousness, which is a prominent feature of the stop task, reduced risk-taking behavior when making monetary decisions.”

They also cite research showing that difficulty stopping these kinds of movements strongly predicts relapse in chronic gamblers, as well as in those with eating disorders. Difficulty with similar stop tasks is also seen in people with drug misuse and addiction problems.

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The idea is spurring a new line of addiction research. For example, one recent study of heavy beer-drinking Dutch college students — cleverly titled Beer a-No-Go — found that simply training students to refrain from pressing keys when faced with beer-related images on the computer helped reduce their drinking by nearly 30%.

In contrast, in a study of heavy marijuana users, researchers found that those who were more likely to pull a joystick toward them when presented with images of cannabis — which made the image bigger and gave the impression that they were “approaching” drug-related stimuli — were more likely to increase their smoking over the next six months, compared with those who pushed the joystick away.

The researchers of the current study, published online in Psychological Science conclude: “[T]he link we found in the present study between proactive motor control and monetary risk taking in gambling suggests promising new avenues for clinical therapy that target motor inhibition.”

For people with addictions, such movement-based therapy could be an especially welcome relief: unlike many current treatments, which require arduous and often painful self-disclosure, it could make it as easy for people to learn important recovery skills as playing a video game.

And maybe we could even encourage Wall Street bankers to take it up.

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Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.

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