Scientists find losing money a real pain

Scientists find losing money a real pain
Roger Highfield / Telegraph (UK)

Losing money may cause you more pain than you realise, according to a study published today.

Being a loser activates brain regions traditionally linked with fear and pain, the study in Journal of Neuroscienceclaims.

In experiments involving 24 volunteer gamblers, losing money activated the striatum, an area involved in responding to fear, danger and pain.

This reaction could have a wider role, acting in the event of various defeats such as a favourite team being beaten or losing an argument.

Dr Ben Seymour, of University College London, and colleagues found that the subjects were learning to predict when there was a chance of winning or losing money, and that this learning appeared to occur in the striatum.

Dr Seymour said: "Since money appeared only very recently in human history, there has been insufficient time to evolve any specialised neural architecture to deal with it, so it seems it may have exploited existing mechanisms involved in more primitive functions.

"Clearly, none of us wants to lose money in the same way that none of us wants to experience pain.

"It would make sense that the way that we learn to predict and hence avoid both of them should be linked."

Meanwhile, another study by a team at Stanford University, California, has revealed that older people may have an inbuilt tendency to be taken in by scams and confidence tricksters.

Researchers compared the brain scans of adults aged 19-27 years with another group who were over 65-years-old. While both the young and older adults were similarly thrilled at the prospect of an impending gain, the older group had "less negative arousal to anticipated losses".

This lack of fear of losing money was mirrored by activity in the striatum. Activity of this region changed by a similar amount when both young and old anticipated gains but only the young adults showed a change in activity paralleling the amount of anticipated loss.

"We found that older adults responded like younger adults when anticipating uncertain monetary gains. However, when anticipating uncertain losses, younger adults displayed increased brain activation and self-reported distress. Older adults did not," said psychologist Gregory Samanez Larkin, one of the team that reports the work in the journal Nature Neuroscience.

"Importantly, both younger and older adults showed a similar response when they actually lost money."

While this asymmetry may increase elders' well-being, since they may worry less about losses that may or may not occur, it may also put them at relative risk for scamming and other scenarios that require caution and concern, Mr Samanez Larkin added.