Older people are less willing to take risks for potential rewards and this may be due to declining levels of dopamine in the brain, finds a new UCL study of over 25,000 people funded by Wellcome.
The study, published in Current Biology, found that older people were less likely to choose risky gambles to win more points in a smartphone app called The Great Brain Experiment. However, they were no different to younger participants when it came to choosing risky gambles to avoid losing points. It is widely believed that older people don’t take risks, but the study shows exactly what kind of risks older people avoid.
The steady decline in risky choices with age matches a steady decline in dopamine levels. Throughout adult life, dopamine levels fall by up to 10% every decade.
Dopamine is a chemical in the brain involved in predicting which actions will lead to rewards, and the researchers previously found that volunteers chose significantly more risky gambles to win more money when given a drug that boosted dopamine levels.
“As we age, our dopamine levels naturally decline which could explain why we are less likely to seek rewards,” explains lead author Dr Robb Rutledge (UCL Institute of Neurology and Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research). “The effects we saw in the experiment may be due to dopamine decline, since age was associated with only one type of risk taking and mirrored the known effects of dopamine drugs on decision making. Older people were not more risk-averse overall, and they didn’t make more mistakes than young people did. Older people were simply less attracted to big rewards and this made them less willing to take risks to try to get them.”
The experiment involved 25,189 smartphone users aged 18-69 who played a game in The Great Brain Experiment smartphone app that involves gambling for points.* In the game, players start with 500 points and aim to win as many points as possible in thirty different trials where they must choose between a safe option and a risky 50/50 gamble.
In the ‘gain’ trials, players can either choose a guaranteed number of points or a 50/50 chance of winning more points or gaining nothing. The ‘loss’ trials are the same in reverse, where players can lose a fixed number of points or gamble with a chance of losing more points or nothing. In the ‘mixed’ trials, players can choose zero points or to gamble with a chance of either gaining or losing points.
On average, all age groups chose to gamble in approximately 56% of the loss trials and 67% of the mixed trials. In the gain trials, 18-24 year olds gambled in 72% of trials and this fell steadily to 64% in the 60-69 age group.
This study also involved mathematical equations which allowed the authors to make specific predictions for how loss of dopamine would affect decision making.
“A loss of dopamine may explain why older people are less attracted to the promise of potential rewards,” says Dr Rutledge. “Decisions involving potential losses were unaffected and this may be because different processes important for losses are not affected by ageing.
“Political campaigners often frame voting decisions negatively, for example saying that UK households would be £4,300 worse off if the UK decides later this month to leave the EU rather than £4,300 better off if the UK decides to remain part of the EU. They already know that negative messaging helps to persuade older people, whereas a more optimistic approach that emphasizes large potential rewards might appeal more to younger people who are less likely to vote. Our new findings offer a potential neuroscientific explanation, suggesting that a natural decline in dopamine with age might make people less receptive to the positive approach than they would have been when they were younger.”
Dr Raliza Stoyanova, from the Neuroscience and Mental Health team at Wellcome, which funded the study, says: “This study is an excellent example of the use of digital technology to produce new and robust insights into the workings of the brain. Smartphone apps allowed the researchers to capture decision-making outside of typical ‘lab’ settings, and to reach more people from varied backgrounds than is typically possible.
“It will be exciting to see what else the data generated from the Great Brain Experiment will reveal about risk and decision-making, as well as other complex brain processes like memory and attention.”
While we may think of some people are consistently wise, we actually demonstrate different levels of wisdom from one situation to the next, and factors such as whether we are alone or with friends can affect it, according to new research from the University of Waterloo.
The study defines wise reasoning as a combination of such abilities as intellectual humility, consideration of others’ perspective and looking for compromise. The work appears in Social Psychological and Personality Science.
“This research does not dismiss that there is a personality component to wisdom, but that’s not the whole picture,” said Professor Igor Grossmann, from the Department of Psychology at Waterloo and lead author of the paper. “Situations in daily life affect our personality and ability to reason wisely.”
The observation that wise reasoning varies dramatically across situations in daily life suggests that while it fluctuates, wisdom may not be as rare as we think. Further, for different individuals, only certain situations may promote this quality.
“There are many examples where people known for their critical acumen or expertise in ethics seem to fall prey to lack of such acumen or morals. The present findings suggest that those examples are not an anomaly,” said Grossmann. “We cannot always be at the top of our game in terms of wisdom-related tendencies, and it can be dangerous to generalize based on whether people show wisdom in their personal life or when teaching others in the classroom .”
By examining conditions and situations under which people may or may not show wisdom in their lives, researchers and practitioners may learn more about situations promoting wisdom in daily life and recreating those situations.
For the next stage of this work, Grossmann and his team are preparing a tool to assess wisdom according to the situation. They have plans to conduct the first-ever longitudinal study aiming at teaching people to reason wisely in their own lives.
Researchers have long known that sex hormones such as estrogen play a role in migraine. But there’s been little research on how that works.
Do women with migraine have higher estrogen levels in general?
Higher levels at the peak of the monthly cycle?
Research published in the June 1, 2016, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, shows that, for women with a history of migraine, estrogen levels may drop more rapidly in the days just before menstruation than they do for women who do not have migraine history. For other hormone patterns, there were no differences between women with migraine and women who did not have migraine.
The study also showed that the women with a migraine history had a faster rate of estrogen decline regardless of whether they had a migraine during that cycle.
“These results suggest that a ‘two-hit’ process may link estrogen withdrawal to menstrual migraine. More rapid estrogen decline may make women vulnerable to common triggers for migraine attacks such as stress, lack of sleep, foods and wine,” said study author Jelena Pavlovic, MD, PhD, of Albert Einstein College of Medicine/Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, NY, and a member of the American Academy of Neurology.
For the study, researchers reviewed migraine history, daily headache diaries and hormone data for 114 women with a history of migraine and 223 women without a history of migraine. The women were an average 47 years old. The investigators measured hormone levels from daily urine samples for one monthly cycle; the participants’ peak hormone levels, average daily levels and day-to-day rates of decline were calculated over the five days following each hormone peak in their cycles.
In the two days after the peak estrogen level in the luteal phase of the cycle, which is the time after ovulation and before menstruation, the estrogen levels in the women with migraine dropped by 40 percent compared to 30 percent for women without migraine. The rate dropped 34 picrograms per milligram of creatinine (pg/mgCr) in women with migraine, compared to 23 pg/mgCr in women without migraine.
“Future studies should focus on the relationship between headaches and daily hormone changes and explore the possible underpinnings of these results,” said Pavlovi?.
While the study’s size and amount of hormone data are strengths, limitations include proportionately more Chinese and Japanese women in the group of women without migraine and more white and black women in the migraine group. The level of sex hormones may differ according to racial and ethnic differences.
Do you often wonder what the person next to you is thinking?
You might be high in mind-reading motivation (MRM), a newly coined term for the practice of observing and interpreting bits of social information, like whether the person next to you is rhythmically drumming his fingers because he’s anxious or if someone is preoccupied because she’s gazing off into the distance.
MRM is the tendency to engage with the mental states and perspectives of others. But it’s much more than just a means of passing idle time. Being high in MRM leads to many social benefits, including better teamwork, according to Melanie Green, an associate professor in the University at Buffalo Department of Communication and corresponding author of the groundbreaking new study published in the journalMotivation and Emotion.
“We’re not talking about the psychic phenomenon or anything like that, but simply using cues from other people’s behavior, their non-verbal signals, to try to figure out what they’re thinking,” says Green.
MRM is an entirely new construct – developed by Green and her coauthors Jordan M. Carpenter at the University of Pennsylvania and Tanya Vacharkulksemsuk at Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley – which also has implications for advertising and relationships.
Individuals high in MRM enjoy speculating on others’ thoughts based on the potentially hundreds of social cues they might receive. Those low in MRM dislike or have no interest in doing so. MRM is about the motivation to engage with other minds, and is distinct from the ability to accurately interpret others’ cues.
“We didn’t measure ability directly in our study of teamwork, but the research suggests that just the motivation to understand others, and presumably the behaviors that go along with that motivation, appear to lead to benefits,” says Green.
In addition to facilitating cooperation and better teamwork, people high in MRM also consider people in great detail and have a nuanced understanding of those around them.
“Those high in MRM seem to develop richer psychological portraits of those around them,” says Green. “It’s the difference between saying ‘this person strives for success, but is afraid of achieving it’ as opposed to ‘this person is a great cook.'”
The relevance of those portraits also appears to have implications for advertising and the salience of certain messages.
“High MRM people are more drawn to and pay more attention to messages with an identifiable source – a spokesperson or an ad focusing on company values – that is, someone whose perspective they can try to understand.” says Green. “On the other hand, low MRM people seem to pay more attention to ads that are more impersonal, like those that just discuss the product – a message that does not appear to come from a particular person or group.”
Although there is no previous research in MRM, there is a long history of studies on perspective taking. But much of that research has focused on situations where perspective taking, in a sense, is required.
“Think about seeing some kind of trouble and trying to figure out what’s wrong,” she says. “Or noticing your partner is upset and you try to figure out what they’re thinking.”
Green and her colleagues thought there might be a difference in how much people enjoy or were motivated to speculate on people’s thoughts in situations where there was no situational need or institutional pressure. It could be as simple as a bus passenger considering the thoughts of those across the aisle.
“This hadn’t been previously considered from the standpoint of individual differences,” says Green.
If you or someone you care about experience an emotional problem it won’t be long before you hear that cognitive behaviour therapy, or CBT, is probably the treatment of choice.
Research over the last 40 years or so has found CBT to be helpful for all manner of problems, including anxiety, depression, insomnia, pain, anger, sexual problems, and the list goes on. But what exactly is it?
CBT is probably best understood by what it is trying to achieve. The main premise of CBT is that problems develop as a consequence of learnt ways of thinking (cognition) and behaving, and that learning new ways of thinking and behaving will have more helpful impacts on emotions and well-being.
Cognition: the C in CBT
The cognitive element of CBT refers to our thoughts, mental images, self-talk and core beliefs about ourselves (I’m ok, or I’m not), other people (they are generally friendly or they’re not) and the world around us (the future is bright or it’s not).
The more threatening our thoughts (I’m going to be criticised), the more anxious we will feel. The more hopeless we believe the future is (there’s no point), the more depressed we will feel. The more strongly we believe things should be different (the world must not be this way!), the more frustrated and angry we will feel.
The way we think is guided by what we pay attention to (a tendency to focus on negative things?), the way we interpret what is happening around us (seeing the glass half-full?) and the experiences we are most likely to remember (such as the times things went bad rather than the times things went well).
We all use particular styles of thinking from time to time that can get us into trouble. We are “catastrophising” when we blow things way out of proportion (things are rarely that bad). Using words like “never” and “always” is a good sign we’re thinking in an overgeneralised way (most bad things happen somewhere between never and always).
It’s important to remember that thoughts are, well, just thoughts. They are not immutable facts.
Most of the thoughts we have throughout the day are random streams of consciousness that are simply the output of creative minds. And many people can interpret exactly the same situation in many different ways.
Behaviour: the B in CBT
The behavioural aspect of CBT is based on learning theory. If you’ve heard of Pavlov’s dogs then you know about classical conditioning. Pavlov rang a bell just before he gave his dogs some food. Eventually the dogs started to salivate when they heard a bell ring (even if no food was given). They learnt that the bell signalled food. (Voila! Classical conditioning.)
Emotional responses can be classically conditioned in a similar way. As a simple example, someone with a dog phobia might recall being bitten as a child (perhaps by one of Pavlov’s dogs?). A cognitive behaviour therapist might speculate that the child developed a classically conditioned fear response to the dog.
Just like the bell triggered Pavlov’s dogs to salivate, an image or thought of a dog can trigger fear (even if the dog has no intention of biting).
Pavlov found that if he repeatedly rang the bell without providing food eventually the dogs stopped salivating when they heard the bell. They learnt that the bell no longer signalled food.
Similarly, if we repeatedly expose someone with a dog phobia to dogs without them being bitten, then they will learn that dogs are not dangerous and the fear response will stop being triggered. It turns out that repeated exposure to any feared object or situation (in the absence of the fear coming true) can effectively diminish the fear response.
A cognitive behaviour therapist is interested in all the things we do (or avoid doing) to manage the difficulties life throws our way. This might include unhelpful behaviours such as always avoiding the things we fear, excessively using drugs or alcohol, being controlling or violent towards others, and the list goes on.
Avoidance denies us any chance to challenge our fears and build confidence that we can cope. Alcohol and drugs might feel good and distract us in the short term, but ultimately our problems still exist and might be even worse in the longer term.
Being controlling towards others might help us feel powerful and in control in the short term, but this can conceal an underlying core belief of vulnerability (if I don’t control my environment, then perhaps it will control me).
These problems are only likely to be resolved when the fears driving these unhelpful behaviours are directly challenged and modified.
Therapy: the T in CBT
Cognitive behaviour therapists help clients better understand why they might have developed particular problems and, more importantly, what vicious cycles are maintaining them.
The most important questions for treatment are:
How do our thoughts, behaviours, physiology, interpersonal relationships and emotions interact to maintain problems in our lives?
How can we break these cycles?
Here are some things you can expect from a competent cognitive behaviour therapist.
A strong therapeutic relationship: Cognitive behavioural therapists appreciate that therapy can be emotional and difficult. They know their client needs to trust them before they will be able to work effectively together. Empathy, genuineness, unconditional positive regard and warmth need to be there in spades.
Collaboration: CBT involves a close working relationship between the client and therapist. The client is seen as an expert in their lives and the therapist is seen as an expert in evidence-supported treatments. Both forms of expertise are equally important to achieve a good outcome.
Goal-setting: CBT aims to be an efficient and time-limited form of therapy. A cognitive behavioural therapist will be very interested in what you would like to achieve from therapy. Together you will plan how to get there and how long it should take.
There is some flexibility if progress is slower than expected, but for most problems the therapist thinks in weeks or months rather than years.
Monitoring and evaluation: Cognitive behavioural therapists don’t rely on their own judgement about when clients' problems have resolved; the therapist might be wrong. Rather, they measure change from the client’s perspective.
The therapist might ask the client to complete some monitoring or questionnaires during therapy so that progress can be tracked.
Cognitive behavioural therapists don’t blame the client if the problem isn’t improving. The therapist takes responsibility for changing what is done in therapy to ensure things get back on track.
Practical skills: CBT aims to teach clients to relate differently to their thoughts, physical sensations, emotions and behaviours so that they don’t get caught up in them in problematic ways.
One technique might involve identifying negative thoughts and challenging them by recognising when they are overly catastrophic and generating more realistic and helpful alternatives.
The techniques covered in CBT will depend on the nature of the problem, but you can expect to leave therapy with a toolkit full of helpful skills.
Between-session tasks: Clients never come to therapy just to feel good for the hour they are in the therapists’ office. They come to improve their lives out in the real world. For this reason, cognitive behaviour therapists encourage clients to apply their new skills between sessions and report back on how it went. This is where much of the hard work, learning and changes occur in CBT.
Here and how focus: CBT acknowledges the role that past experiences play in shaping who we are, but at the same time recognises that little can be done to change what has already occurred.
Instead, CBT focuses on identifying what is left behind from these experiences in the form of core beliefs about ourselves, others, and the world, and how these beliefs impact on present-day experiences.
Modifying these core beliefs can change our emotional responses to memories of earlier negative experiences, and can change the way we respond to challenges in our lives now and into the future.
The process of therapy is challenging and takes courage. A cognitive behavioural therapist’s role is to guide, support and cheer-lead when required. CBT’s overarching aim is to increase clients’ coping self-efficacy – their confidence in their own ability to manage their problems on their own.
If a cognitive behavioural therapist has done a good job, the client should leave therapy knowing that they are responsible for the benefits they have achieved from therapy and that they can continue to build on these gains well into the future.