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Decision-making during gambling: an integration of cognitive and psychobiological approaches

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      Gambling is a widespread form of entertainment that may afford unique insights into the interaction between cognition and emotion in human decision-making. It is also a behaviour that can become harmful, and potentially addictive, in a minority of individuals. This article considers the status of two dominant approaches to gambling behaviour. The cognitive approach has identified a number of erroneous beliefs held by gamblers, which cause them to over-estimate their chances of winning. The psychobiological approach has examined case-control differences between groups of pathological gamblers and healthy controls, and has identified dysregulation of brain areas linked to reward and emotion, including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and striatum, as well as alterations in dopamine neurotransmission. In integrating these two approaches, recent data are discussed that reveal anomalous recruitment of the brain reward system (including the vmPFC and ventral striatum) during two common cognitive distortions in gambling games: the near-miss effect and the effect of personal control. In games of chance, near-misses and the presence of control have no objective influence on the likelihood of winning. These manipulations appear to harness a reward system that evolved to learn skill-oriented behaviours, and by modulating activity in this system, these cognitive distortions may promote continued, and potentially excessive, gambling.

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          Instrumental conditioning studies how animals and humans choose actions appropriate to the affective structure of an environment. According to recent reinforcement learning models, two distinct components are involved: a "critic," which learns to predict future reward, and an "actor," which maintains information about the rewarding outcomes of actions to enable better ones to be chosen more frequently. We scanned human participants with functional magnetic resonance imaging while they engaged in instrumental conditioning. Our results suggest partly dissociable contributions of the ventral and dorsal striatum, with the former corresponding to the critic and the latter corresponding to the actor.

            Author and article information

            Department of Experimental Psychology, simpleBehavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute, University of Cambridge , Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3EB, UK
            Author notes
            Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci
            Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
            The Royal Society
            27 January 2010
            27 January 2010
            : 365
            : 1538 , Theme Issue 'Rationality and emotions' compiled and edited by Alan Kirman, Pierre Livet and Miriam Teschl
            : 319-330
            © 2010 The Royal Society

            This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


            Philosophy of science

            risk, gambling, addiction, reward, cognition, emotion


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