What Your Brain Looks Like Right Before It Takes A Risk

Portraits of the risky brain could help us design workplaces that improve decision-making.

What Your Brain Looks Like Right Before It Takes A Risk
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When we think of risky business, we tend to think of financial trades, or venture capital investments, or maybe Tom Cruise. In other words, we think of pretty high stakes. But risk also exists at a much lower, everyday level around the office. We send that personal email from our work address. We pitch that bold project to the boss. We join that conference call while driving. For every big bet that makes or breaks a fortune, countless tiny ones creep through the workplace.


Understanding how people arrive at these common gambles could help us improve our daily decision-making. In an effort to gain such insight, a group of researchers led by Sarah M. Helfinstein of the University of Texas at Austin recently tried to identify where they emerge in the brain. That effort involved scanning the brains of 108 test participants playing a game called the Balloon Analog Risk Task. For the game, players choose whether to give a virtual balloon one more pump and risk it popping, or to stop and cash out for points.

Simple as it sounds, the balloon game is a pretty reliable reflection of the types of everyday risks we take both at work and at home. Players don’t know when the balloon will pop–just as people don’t know when their boss will catch them browsing the web one too many times, or which heroin dose will be your last. In fact, performance on the balloon test has been linked with real-world risk-taking behaviors such as smoking, drug use, and unsafe sex.

Helfinstein and colleagues analyzed the brain activity that occurred right before players made a risky choice (pumping the balloon) or a safe choice (cashing out). So if a player pumped on a fourth choice in one game, and cashed out on the fourth choice in another game, the researchers looked at the third choice from each trial. This design helped them compare situations where the amount of risk was the same but the subsequent decision differed.

“We were making sure the only things that differed between these two trials was what was going to happen a few seconds into the future,” Helfinstein tells Co.Design. “Whatever sort of cognitive processing that was going on right before they made that different choice.”

We make risky choices when these brain regions associated with control aren’t active enough. Credit: Sarah Helfinstein/U. of Texas at Austin

Now the researchers knew what the brain looked like before taking a risk and what it looked like before playing things safe. Using those neural portraits, they developed an algorithm to predict what choice balloon players would make next. When they put that formula to the test, it guessed a player’s behavior correctly about three quarters of the time, the researchers report in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

There’s no need to worry just yet that your boss will start predicting your behavior, Minority Report-style. (There’s that Cruise guy again.) It may be possible to wheel an fMRI scanner into your cubby space and guess whether or not you’re about to take a bad risk, but it’s not exactly practical.


What’s useful about these findings is where the researchers found most risk-related activity in the brain: the control networks. (To be precise, the anterior cingulate cortex, the bilateral insula, and the parietal cortices were most predictive in the algorithm.) So players didn’t take risks for the thrill; if that had been the case, reward centers of the brain would have been most active. Instead, they took risks when they couldn’t control themselves enough to play it safe.

Here’s why that matters. If employers know that self-control is the key cognitive factor in risky behavior, they can find ways to shape the work environment to strengthen it. To give one hypothetical example: Scheduling a big decision right before lunch might not be a good idea if control proves weakest when we’re hungry. More broadly, says Helfinstein, “We can start to see what different elements out there are most important for helping to make better decisions.”

Of course, a certain amount of risky business isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There’s good risk and bad risk, and unfortunately the flipside of a decision leading to financial meltdown might well be the next big innovation. On a smaller scale, some of our quotidian gambles might make office life more tolerable. So we don’t want to design all risk out of the workplace–just the risks that don’t help the work.

About the author

Eric Jaffe is an editor at CityLab, where he writes about transportation, history, and behavioral science, among other topics, through the lens of urban life. He's also the author of The King's Best Highway (2010) and A Curious Madness (2014).