Gambling Decisions Influenced By Evolution
March 18, 2013

Gambling Decisions Influenced By Evolution

Alan McStravick for — Your Universe Online

Many of us who have made vacation plans to travel to the entertainment and gambling bastions of Las Vegas or Atlantic City, or any number of the regional casinos around the nation, probably find we enjoy the thrill of the possibility of parlaying a nominal bet into a moderate windfall. However, the fact these locations continue to exist and thrive lets one know the odds are typically in favor of the house.

There are, however, individuals who not only derive a perverse thrill from the act of gambling, but also believe they are immune to the overwhelming odds held by the house. A problem gambler is described as someone whose behavior causes disruptions in any major area of their life. Among these specified areas are psychological, physical, social or vocational. A problem gambler, also known as a pathological or compulsive gambler, suffers from a progressive addiction that is characterized by an increasing preoccupation with gambling. The progressive nature leads to larger and more frequent bets, restlessness or irritability when attempting to curb the addiction, and an overall loss of control leading to a continuation of gambling despite the fact one is realizing ever increasing negative consequences.

While treatment of a gambling addiction is serious and necessary for those afflicted, a new international team of researchers has released a study that points to the origins of the behaviors of modern day gamblers. The results of their study suggest the impetus behind the decision making for the gambler is rooted in basic human evolution. The basic survival techniques adopted by early humans, they determined, have a strong effect on the gambler and their placing of bets. The team contends their findings may explain why some treatment options for a problem gambler are often ineffective.

The team, comprised of scientists from McMaster University, the University of Lethbridge and Liverpool John Moores University, examined how gamblers arrived at decisions after they won or lost a particular bet. Their study is published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Through the course of their study, the researchers determined gamblers, like our ancestors before us, relied strongly upon past experiences in helping to predict what might occur in the future. However, in games of chance where the outcome is completely random, this strategy is, at best, ineffectual.

“If you are tossing a coin and it turns up heads five times in a row, we have this strong feeling that it will turn up tails on the sixth try," explains Jim Lyons, an associate professor of kinesiology at McMaster University and lead researcher on the project. "But the chances are still exactly 50-50.”

"The results of our work suggest, perhaps for the first time, that certain aspects of problem gambling behavior may be related to hard-wired, basic neurobiological factors related to how we direct our attention," he said in a statement.

In order to arrive at their conclusion, the researchers utilized two experiments to test their theory.

The first experiment asked participants to observe two targets which were illuminated in a random sequencing. Participants were given money by the research team with which to bet on which target would next be illuminated.

While the study participants were able to maintain their allotted amounts of money, despite a win or a loss, the team discovered that after they won, they were more likely to move their bets to the previously losing target for their next wager.

The second set of experiments was similar, except each participant was paired with a partner. Again, the teams were allowed to maintain their allotted amount of money despite a win or loss. If, when the partner was betting, a wager came up as a win, the partner was more likely to change to the other target when it was their turn to bet.

According to Dan Weeks, a psychology researcher at the University of Lethbridge, humans have evolved through time to modify their behavior based on what they experience in the context of their location.

"Humans make rational decisions on a day-to-day basis based on experience. Think about someone picking apples in an orchard. Once the apples from the first tree are picked, it is a rational decision to move on to the next tree," he says.

"These are also important findings because they suggest that, at least in some cases, these behaviors might be resistant to current [behavioral] intervention strategies," says co-author Digby Elliott, professor of motor control and behavioral neurosciences at Liverpool John Moores University and professor emeritus at McMaster.

The international team is interested in building upon their findings for their next study. In it, they plan to examine how this type of behavior may change as we progress in age. This is due to the fact current evidence suggests problem gambling can actually be particularly acute in the elderly.