When We Are Invested In The Decisions Of Others


When following a tipster, we are investing our own hard earned money in the decision of another person. Today Alex Titkov tells us of a recent study that looks at the impact of investing in the advice of others.

Winning Punters

In certain competitive situations, people can have an array of types of investments and interests in the performance of others. Sometimes we cheer for our home team, the underdog, or sometimes we have no allegiance at all.

But how may our brain react to such a scenario where we: (A) gain or lose when a performer also gains or loses, (B) gain when the performer loses (or vice versa), or (C) when we are objective spectators to the result (regardless of win or loss)?

Using neurofeedback by specifically placed electrodes on the scap, neuropsychology gives (relatively) direct insight into brain activity and what happens when we observe how others perform. In this article we look at a neurophysiological study conducted by Josep Marco-Pallares, Ulrike M Krämer, Saskia Strehl, Andrea Schröder, and Thomas F Münte, When decisions of others matter to me: an electrophysiological analysis.

The Experiment

In previous studies, electro-physiological brain activity was analyzed after a task was executed. When a task was performed incorrectly or when negative feedback was received, a specific brain signal was recorded (from a specific part of the head). This electrical signal is called FRN (Feedback Related Negativity) and has also been recorded in studies looking at gambling related scenarios where money is lost directly by the participant performer. Not only in the player, but similar FRN signals have been recorded in those observing errors of others.

This study took the next step by looking at how players and different types of observers reacted to a simplified gambling task. Every trial consisted of two individuals --a performer and an observer-- sitting in the same room and looking at a screen. The screen would flash two numbers every time, a 25 and a 5. The player would then be able to choose either the 25 (by pressing a button by his left hand) or the 5 (by pressing a button by his right hand). After the selection, the screen would flash blue first to highlight the player’s selection, and then either red (an incorrect choice) or green (a correct choice). Wins or losses resulted in the corresponding amount in Euro cents (.25 or .05).

Players were paid 7 Euros an hour plus any winnings and instructed to win as much as possible. Observers were given an hourly wage and either won or lost depending on the performance of the player or were neutral to performance and received an extra 3 euros to just be objective observers.

The experiment recorded brain activity (of all involved) when a player performed the gambling task with three kinds of observers:

  • a parallel (they won or lost when the player won or lost)
  • a reverse (they won when the player lost and vice versa)
  • a neutral (they were impartial to results)

The Results

The analysis showed that when a player chose incorrectly, an FRN neural signal was recorded. As predicted, this also happened with the parallel observer sitting next to them and a corresponding positive one when the player won. The opposite occurred with the reverse observers; that is an FRN signal was recorded in the observer when the player won and vice versa.

Interestingly, the neutral observers also reflected a negative neural (FRN) signal when the player lost even though they had nothing to lose or gain.

The authors explained this may be due to two types of mental processes involved. One is that we evaluate if a win or loss is indeed positive or negative for us and the other is a level of empathy (via emotions) involved when observing others even if there is nothing at stake and no previous relationship.

It would be interesting to see in future research if gambling performances of others would aid or hinder gambling behavior since in this study, players chose incorrectly about 3 out of 4 attempts.



Follow Alex on Twitter: @alextitkov

And read more of his work at the EMSEP Sport and Exercise Psychology Blog

Double M.S. in Sport and Exercise Psychology from Lund University. Sport science specialist, editor, writer, and footballer.