A study recently published by the Department of Clinical and Health Psychology of Utrecht University in The Netherlands explores how hunger affects gambling decisions. Previous research indicates that people in “hot states” are prone to making bad decisions. The results of Utrecht University’s study, however, might be a game-changer. Background What the research team refers to as “hot states” includes any time a person’s normal judgment may be overridden by an immediate need or desire. This might occur when a person is hungry, emotional, aroused, or during other times. For example, someone who is on a diet would normally be more inclined to break their routine and indulge in an unhealthy treat if they haven’t eaten in a while. Although enough research hasn’t been done to explain why, these hot states often trigger other effects within the reward center of the brain. It’s been noted that people who are hungry also have an increased desire for money and other rewards that have no association with the driving factor. Moreover, the craving tends to take over an entire thought process, which causes people to become indifferent to their long-term goals as they seek out an immediate or short-term gain. To back this up, other studies have been done on patients with known impulse disorders, as well as those with brain defects that alter how they process emotions. It was found that they use gut instincts to make complex decisions and therefore make poor choices in complex decisions. For these reasons, it makes sense to assume that someone who is hungry will be prone to making bad gambling decisions, because they will act on impulse, rather than knowledge. Trials Overall, the study consisted of three different trials. In each, all participants were instructed not to eat after 11pm the night before. They were randomly split into two groups upon their morning arrival and one group was fed breakfast. The other was left hungry for the purpose of establishing the effect of hunger on decision-making. The first two trials relied on The Iowa Gambling Task (IGT) to help determine how participants responded to choices involving risk and reward. The IGT varies depending on who is proctoring it, but, in general, participants are offered a series of decks and begin with a set amount of money to gamble. Participants are told to select a card from any of the decks. Some of the decks contain a high number of cards that will cost a gambler a few points, while others are stacked to win or break even more often. Although the IGT was initially designed to examine the risk-taking behavior of people with lesions in specific areas of the brain, it has been used in other applications as well. Normal and healthy individuals traditionally begin to avoid the high-risk decks quickly, while those with injury or disorders may not take change their habits at all. It was found that those who participated while hungry actually performed better on the IGT than those who had eaten. The third trial was a little different. First, they asked participants whether they had a preference for a small amount of money up front, or a larger amount of money, which would be dispersed later. Those on an empty-stomach opted for delayed gratification more often than those who were satiated. They also tested to see how size perception changed. As noted earlier, those in a hot state are often impulsive in other areas, not just those directly related to their immediate desire. Researchers showed participants a cookie, a coin, and a circle and asked them to gauge size. The cookie and coin were expected to be perceived as larger to those in a hot state. The researchers were only partially correct in this respect. Hungry participants did, indeed, think the coin and the cookie were larger than the satiated participants. However, those in a hot state also thought the circle was larger, too. Results Overall, the study indicated that hunger actually benefits someone who is making a complex decision. The perception of the circle’s size may have been curious, however it is fitting of prior research that indicates hot states alter perceptions across the board, and not just items directly related to the desire. More research will have to be done to determine the full scope of how much of ones’ thought process is affected by a hot state. The bottom line is that this study disproves what was once thought to be common knowledge. Hunger does not cause people to act impulsively or make poor decisions. In fact, people make better choices, and make them quicker, when on an empty stomach. So, whether you’re firing up your computer to hit your favorite online casino, or eyeing the restaurant in a land-based one, consider giving it a go sans food. You just might increase your chances of bringing home more money.