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Examination of Financial Decision-Making in Sub-Threshold Gamblers Open Access


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Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Suen, Victoria Y.M.
Supervisor and department
Silverstone, Peter (Psychiatry)
Morck, Randall (Finance and Statisical Analysis)
Examining committee member and department
Wilman, Alan (Biomedical Engineering)
Cribben, Ivor (Finance and Statistical Analysis)
Smith, Garry (Professor Emeritus - Alberta Gambling Reseach Institute)
MacMaster, Frank (Psychiatry)
Department of Psychiatry

Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
Gambling is a recreational activity enjoyed by many; however, for some this enjoyment can lead to the development of Gambling Disorder with financial, personal, and psychological ramifications. The study of pathological gamblers has targeted the psychological, behavioural and neurobiological aspects and points to dysfunctions in decision-making and reward processing as common across pathological gamblers. Brain regions typically studied include the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the anterior cingulate cortex, and the ventral striatum. What is less clear is how the spectrum of gamblers compares to non-gamblers. Considerable attention has been paid to those who are clinically diagnosed; however, there remains a group of frequent gamblers who do not meet the requirements for diagnosis, a sub-threshold group. We examined the brain activation patterns of sub-threshold gamblers in an investment decision-making task to determine if and how decision-making in this group differs from those who do not gamble. Additionally, it is well recognized that individuals follow “Expert” advice, even when flawed and offers no advantage, and sometimes leads to disadvantages. The neurobiology underlying this is uncertain, and in particular there is an incomplete understanding of which brain regions are most involved when individuals chose to disobey an expert. To study this we examined functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) differences during an investment game where non-gambling subjects received differentially credible investment advice. We also wished to examine how sub-threshold gamblers compare to non-gamblers in the presence of advice. Participants (n = 64) played a novel investment game developed specifically for this study, in which they could Buy or Not Buy a sequence of stocks. The better they did, the more money they made. In our first study, non-gamblers received either “Expert” advice or “Peer” advice. Those receiving Expert advice were told the advice came from a certified financial “Expert”. Those receiving Peer Advice were told the advice was that of the student administering the scans, who deliberately dressed and acted casually. Both streams of advice were predetermined and identical. The advice was scripted to be helpful initially, but progressively worsened as the task continued, becoming 100% wrong by the end of the task. In our second study, non-gamblers and gamblers both completed the task under the assertion that the advice being received was from an “Expert”. Psychological measures were also administered to determine links between patterns of brain activation and psychological traits. Subjects receiving Expert Advice followed the advice significantly longer on average, even though this was progressively worse advice. Thus, following Expert advice had poorer consequences for individuals, but this did not dissuade them from continuing to follow the advice. In contrast, when subjects disobeyed Expert advice they exhibited significant anterior cingulate cortex and superior frontal gyrus activation relative to those disobeying Peer advice. These findings may suggest that in subjects who defy authority, or believe they are doing so (in this case by disobeying an “Expert”) there is increased activation of these two brain regions. This may have relevance to several areas of behaviour, and the potential role of these two brain regions in regard to disobedience behaviour requires further study. Sub-threshold gamblers displayed more rational decision-making by following bad advice less than non-gamblers. However, in contrast to previous research linking ventromedial prefrontal cortex deactivation to decision-making in pathological gamblers, our sub-threshold gamblers did not display this pattern of deactivation. Our gamblers reported greater risk tolerance across multiple domains, not just greater financial risk tolerance. However, our findings also failed to support previous suggestions that impulsivity significantly explains gambling severity, is linked to lowered self-esteem or greater rates of adverse childhood experience thus gambling related psychological factors remain unclear. Our study indicates that dysfunctions in decision-making and reward processing may differ across non-gamblers, sub-threshold gamblers, and pathological gamblers thus future research including all three groups may be pertinent.
This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for the purpose of private, scholarly or scientific research. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
Citation for previous publication
Suen, V.Y.M., M.R.G. Brown, R.K. Morck and P.H. Silverstone (2014). “Regional brain changes occurring in disobedience to “experts” in financial decision-making.” PLoS One 9:e87321.

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