Science & Environment

Mobile phone app sheds new light on risk taking behaviour

Rock climber Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption One of the games measures whether it is worth taking a risk in order to gain points

New research shows that risky behaviour and impulsiveness can be reliably tested with specially designed mobile phone games.

Scientists found that four puzzles in The Great Brain Experiment app can measure several different aspects of cognitive function.

Other games test our visual perception and our ability to remember things.

Scientists hope that results from thousands of participants will help them address population differences.

The research has been published in the journal Plos One.

By playing games participants can compare themselves to the other players while sending data back to the scientists.

"Each of these games is a serious scientific experiment," said Dr Peter Zeidman, a neuroscientist from University College London who was involved with the research.

"By playing the games people can not only have some fun but can contribute to the latest research in psychology and neuroscience," he added.

The "Am I Impulsive?" game, for example, asks participants to smash fruit that is falling from a tree using their fingers, but to refrain from smashing it when it is rotting, indicated by the fruit turning brown.

Harnessing big data

"That ability to hold yourself back from an action - trying to not do something - is a really important human ability and something we want to understand better.

"People with certain psychiatric illnesses or neurological problems have an impaired ability to inhibit their actions, for example ADHD or schizophrenia... If we can better understand just in the healthy population how people inhibit their actions then we'll learn a lot more," Dr Zeidman told the BBC's Science in Action Programme.

The team from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging questioned whether results from the games could be reliably included as part of scientific experiments and found that they were as good as lab experiments, with the added benefit of a huge sample size.

They compared the scores of 16,000 participants with similar experiments in a lab setting and they found that all four games gave statistically robust results. This was despite many of the distractions people may face while playing games on their mobile phones.

The scientists hope to answer questions about how memory, impulsivity or risk taking change over time, and they can also look at how these relate to each other.

Crucially, the way the app has been designed allows scientists to contact participants with unusually good scores.

Though the app is completely anonymous, it can send a message to a phone asking if a participant would like to come in for a brain scan.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Bigger gains can be made by taking a riskier approach

Results from one of the games have already been used in research looking at working memory - when information is held for only a very short time, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

In this work lead author Fiona McNab from Birmingham University found that the brain deals with distraction in different ways.

"Understanding distraction in this way can resolve previous inconsistencies and lead to new discoveries, such as in schizophrenia and healthy ageing where working memory is impaired," said Dr McNab.

Predicting the future

While the initial analyses were based on four games, there are now four new ones available. "Can I predict the future?" is one of these and focuses on how people learn about how much reward is available in the environment and whether it might change over time.

So far 93,000 people have installed the app since it was launched and of those, 65,000 people's data is now being analysed.

The researchers said that over time, data from the games could be combined with medical, genetic or lifestyle information and could be used to learn more about how wellbeing relates to a persons' psychological characteristics.

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