“Hit me” — a perfect encapsulation of pure risk-taking if ever there was one. Indeed, the roving gambler will chalk his chronic risk-taking up to statistical favor, or adrenaline-seeking tendencies, but new scientific research suggests it’s most likely a lack of self-control that compels people to take risks.

In a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin, UCLA, and others have shown that adrenaline junkies may be less motivated by the rush of danger than by an innate deficiency in willpower. The findings apply to more than just skydivers or heavy gamblers, however. The results could offer new strategies for health care professionals and patients looking to overcome problematic behaviors, such as unsafe sex or drinking and driving.

Not all risk-taking is created equal, of course. The planned acts of buying a house or accepting a new job are calculated risks, but they are necessary, too. We are constantly tasked with handling these sorts of risks when they’re thrust upon us, but also when we actively seek them out, such as when we go skydiving or make the decision to walk into the casino. It’s for this reason behavioral scientists divide risk-taking into two groups: planful and impulsive. Experts claim each type finds itself in a different neural stomping ground.

“In particular, we think that our study is relevant to impulsive risk-taking, where one makes a risky choice in the heat of the moment,” Russell Poldrack, director of UT Austin’s Imaging Research Center and professor of psychology and neuroscience, told Medical Daily. “Gambling is almost definitely a mixture of the two; for example, the decision to go to the casino is probably quite planful, whereas the decision to double down on a bet is probably more like what we are studying.”

Poldrack and his colleagues recruited 108 subjects to sit in an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanner and play a video game that was designed to allow for risk-taking. This way, the team could monitor the player’ brain activity while they made increasingly riskier or safer choices as the game went on. Researchers also used specialized software to look for patterns of activity in the brain that could predict how people would play in the future, both those currently playing and brains it’d never come across before. The software was right 71 percent of the time.

Hoping to better understand what was going on, the team pinpointed the software on specific brain regions concerned with executive functions, such as memory, control, and attention. They found the software showed the same accuracy when it was only focusing on these functions, suggesting these were the only components at work. Sarah Helfinstein, postdoctoral researcher at UT Austin and lead author of the study, said this indicated a need to search for real-world triggers for risk-taking.

“If we can figure out the factors in the world that influence the brain, we can draw conclusions about what actions are best at helping people resist risks,” explained Helfinstein in a university news release.

Important for Helfinstein are the future avenues for research, namely, the ways external factors can weigh on people’s decision to take impulsive risks. The mom looking to drop a few pounds may indulge in sweets not because she has a problem of willpower, but because she’s famished after a day of not eating. She may risk gaining weight, but the motivations must be placed elsewhere. The same could hold true for cases of peer pressure and sleep deprivation, Helfinstein points out — cases where decisions aren’t made in a clear and rational frame of mind.

“It's the impulsive risks where I think that control failure may be an issue,” Poldrack said.

Source: Helfinstein S, Schonberg T, Congdon E, et al. Predicting risky choices from brain activity patterns. PNAS. 2014.