Luke Davis/AP

Gambling Study Reveals the Need for Impulse-Control Training

March 03, 2009 01:34 PM
by Emily Coakley
A study linking impulsivity in kindergarteners to future gambling behaviors demonstrates the need for more attention training, says its lead researcher.

Impulsivity as “Public Health Beacon”

A new study published in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine shows a correlation between impulsiveness in young children and the likelihood of demonstrating “gambling behaviors” early in life.

The study, by the Universite de Montreal’s Sainte-Justine Hospital Research Center, asked kindergarten teachers to rate their pupils’ impulsivity on a scale. The researchers then asked the 163 children, six years later, about their participation in “gambling-related behaviors,” Reuters reported. Those behaviors included betting on sports, playing bingo or cards, using scratch lottery tickets, and playing video poker or other video games for money.

Pagani and her team “found an increase of one unit on the impulsivity scale in kindergarten corresponded to a 25 percent increase in gambling involvement by the sixth grade,” Reuters said. The correlation remained even after researchers controlled for other factors, including having parents who gambled.

While news reports have focused on the idea of middle school students gambling, it was actually a small group of the sample.

“The majority of kids were not engaging in any of these activities, but the fact that any of them were was unexpected,” said Linda Pagani, the study’s lead investigator, according to Time magazine.

Pagani told Reuters that children who gamble are at greater risk of developing serious gambling problems later in life.

Another researcher cautioned that impulsive children, or those who start betting, aren’t necessarily going to have gambling problems later on, Reuters reported.

In an interview with Insider Medicine, Pagani said, “I think that the most important take-home message from this study is that early childhood impulsivity is something that should be considered a public health beacon.”

She went on to tell Insider Medicine that she believes helping children improve their impulsivity early on can help them become more productive adolescents and adults.

Pagani told Time magazine that attention-boosting and impulse-control programs should be thought of “as a long-term investment plan, one that can lead to less addiction, less gambling, a lower dropout rate and lower unemployment.”

Context: Learning about how we pay attention

The ability to pay attention has long been considered a faculty that people do or do not have. Those with attention deficit disorder, a common condition among children and adults, take medication. As the Boston Globe notes, famed psychologist William James said, “any amount of drill or discipline” could not train attention. But decades of research could change how people perceive it. 

Not only do scientists know more about the chemistry and circuitry of attention, but they found that children and adults, including those with ADD, can be trained to improve it. The ability to attend has broader implications than the classroom.

With “good attentional control … you can control your cognitive processes, control your emotions, better articulate your actions,” said Amir Raz in an interview with the Globe. Raz is a McGill University cognitive neuroscientist who researches attention.

Michael Posner at the University of Oregon has theorized that there are three types of attention. “Executive” attention oversees decision making, a higher level function. The other two types are awareness and focus.

He and a colleague were able to use a computer training program that improved young children’s executive attention after five days. Results have been replicated elsewhere, according to the Globe.

Other researchers were able to help children with ADD by using a computer program to improve their working memories. Researcher Christopher Lucas, who is exploring working memory, told the Globe that it “is one of the areas that’s implicated in ADHD … I don’t think it’s the whole story.”

Related Topic: Brain boosting

Brain training has become a big business in the United States, as people spent $225 million on software such as Brain Age in 2007. A University of Michigan study published in 2008 showed that training a person’s working memory can help improve intelligence.

Others see medication as the answer. Some psychiatrists, ethicists and neuroscientists “are encouraging the public to use brain-boosting drugs,  and arguing that medications like Ritalin and Adderall are comparable to other mind-enhancing strategies, such as sleep and coffee,” according to findingDulcinea.

Reference: Attention deficit disorder; science of the brain


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