Risky behaviors such as gambling in an irresponsible manner or drinking too much alcohol at once, can lead to addiction. Not all people who engage in these types of risk taking will become addicts, of course. Some people are predisposed to addiction because of trauma, childhood neglect, family history, or even because of genetic factors. However, anyone is capable of becoming an addict, and engaging in risk taking only increases the odds.
New and exciting research is finding that there are simple steps that anyone can take to reduce their likelihood of taking big risks, whether that means gambling to excess, binge drinking, or trying illegal drugs. Researchers from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom found an association between controlling seemingly unrelated movements and avoiding risky behaviors. The simple premise is that the brain may work in a similar way whether you are stopping your hand from moving or you are resisting the urge to drink too much.
The university researchers worked with groups of people playing a simple gambling video game. The participants were told they would get whatever sum of money the won in the game. The game involved watching six rising columns on a screen, representing different amounts of money, and betting on one of the six columns. The players knew that the higher the monetary value, the lower their odds were of winning, so choosing a larger sum was riskier. The players had a small amount of time in which to make a choice about their bets.
Additionally, the participants were told to press a certain key if the top of any of the rising bars changed color to black. Then, one group was told not to hit that key anymore. These players had to resist the urge to press the key when the bars turned black. The members of this second group were found to be 10 to 15 percent less likely to make risky bets than those who did not have to resist hitting the key. The same results were found in two similar studies. The effect of resisting hitting the key lasted up to two hours after the fact.
The researchers conclude that the two acts are related: resisting a simple motor movement and resisting the urge to take a risk that is unnecessary. They believe that during each of these tasks uses the similar pathways in the brain and that getting better at one makes you automatically better at the other. They also cite research conducted by other groups that has found that difficulty with stopping a simple physical motion coincides with relapses in people with eating disorders and in chronic gamblers.
Another study conducted in the Netherlands found similar results. They asked college students who regularly drink beer to stop themselves from pressing certain keys on the computer when shown images of beer on the screen. The activity reduced the drinking of the participants by 30 percent. Unfortunately, a related study with marijuana did not decrease the participants’ use of the substance, rather it led to an increase in the amount smoked over the next several months.
While the research may be in its infancy, the results found by the British and Dutch studies are very encouraging. More work is needed to refine and validate that there is a real connection between simple self-control and the much more complex behaviors associated with risk-taking and addiction. In the early stages, though, the studies are already leading to more work and the possibility of new addiction treatment techniques.
Currently, treatments for addiction are fairly limited and most do not coincide with current research or with medical findings. Most addicts in treatment are either faced with tough love and expected to go cold turkey, are struggling through a 12-step program, or are divulging their deepest and most painful emotions to a therapist. If instead, addiction could be treated with simple physical movement activities, the results could be much better.
While there are bound to be skeptics whenever new ideas emerge, especially in the rigid world of addiction treatment, the new findings on risky behaviors should be taken seriously and will hopefully lead to improvements in the ways addicts are treated and in the resulting success rates. Even if the techniques are only applied to those who have already been through treatment and need help resisting the urge to relapse, the outcomes could be very positive.