It’s too late for Al Pacino’s original Cuban cocaine lord to save his cartel, but there’s still a chance for the new Scarface to brush up on his science. If Diego Luna’s Tony Montana doesn’t want his empire to die face-down in a fountain, he should consider the results of a study showing the effect of cocaine use on a person’s ability to make smart decisions with their money.
The study, released by a team led by scientists affiliated with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, found that people who use cocaine make riskier decisions after losing out on a gamble. Scarface, as we know, was no stranger to risky business propositions, such as the profit promised by a business deal with a Bolivian drug kingpin. Sober people, in contrast, are likely to be better at assessing the situation after losing their potential rewards, the researchers write in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging. The difference comes down to the ways their brains assess loss.
Turns out that when cocaine users lose a gamble, the parts of the brains really feel the loss. This was what the researchers observed when they had 29 participants with cocaine use disorders perform a Risky Gains Task. This is a game that, not unlike financial investing, allows people to earn money by choosing between three monetary values, the lowest value being the safest choice, and the highest being the most risky. The researchers compared the behavior and brain scans of cocaine users with those of a control group as they played the game and discovered a major difference in brain activity.
As the participants played — and as the stakes got higher — an interesting pattern appeared. Overall, the frequency of risk in both groups of participants was the same, but it was noticeably different right after they’d lost a big bet. After facing a loss, cocaine users doubled down and made even riskier bets, while there was no pronounced difference in non-users.
There was a difference in their brains, as well. Brain activity scans showed a correlation between increasingly risky behavior and activity in the region of the brain involved in reward processing, but only in the people who didn’t use cocaine. The activity in the reward system wasn’t present in cocaine users, leading the authors to think that their wild gambles weren’t motivated by reward — which, in turn, suggests there’s something wrong with their reward and decision-making systems.
However, they’re not sure what the gambling problem boils down to. “It remains unclear if this behavior is driven by greater reward salience, lack of appreciation of danger, or another deficit in risk-related processing,” they write in the article.
Still, it doesn’t take an explanation of the brain’s gambling mechanisms to see that big losses lead to even bigger risks among people who use cocaine. Drug lords like Tony Montana stand to make huge stacks of cash during their business deals, but as business booms, the stakes (like the gangsters themselves) grow increasingly high. If Scarface’s sad end is any indication, the risks of getting coked up just aren’t worth it.