Scavenger (risk taking)

While you were deciding which deserted spaceship to exploit, we got some data on how likely you are to take risks. Did you take risks to get the big rewards or did you play it safe with the sure thing?

What are we studying?

Life is full of risks, and some people enjoy this more than others. You may take smaller risks every day, such as cooking a new dish, or you may risk big and invest all your money in very risky stocks. Some people are risk-seeking (they really enjoy taking risks), whereas others are risk-averse (they are reluctant to take risks). People who do not take risks usually do not like the uncertainty that comes with it (e.g., when you cook something new, you do not know whether it will turn out tasty). Consequently, some people always go for the safe choices, even if it means that they will never come across new and exciting opportunities (e.g., choosing the same dish to cook every day, never discovering the many exciting dishes that different cuisines offer).

 In the Scavenger game, we asked you to choose between a ‘safe’ option where you knew that you will definitely win/lose points, or the ‘risky’ option where you could win/lose more points, but also there was a chance of getting nothing. We can analyse how many times you chose the ‘safe’ option or the ‘risky’ option and analyse how much of a risk-taker you are. For example, you might have noticed that you behaved differently when you had a chance to win points compared to options when you lost points. Why is that? It is thought that we process losses and gains differently in our brain. Most people really do not like losing something, whether it’s money or goods, therefore they take different risks when there is a chance of losing compared to winning.

How does this work in the brain?

Neuroscientists have found that risk taking is directly related to some of your brain’s chemicals, called neurotransmitters. Especially the neurotransmitter dopamine plays a critical role in risk taking. Previous studies have indeed found that administering dopamine leads to increased risk taking in games like the scavenger game. These studies have also found that risk-taking reduces in older age, when dopamine is assumed to diminish.

Why are we interested in that?

In this study, we would like to explore how risk-taking changes throughout development. It is widely believed that adolescents take more risks than adults, but we would like to figure out what the mechanisms are that underlie those differences, and how it is related to specific brain functions.