Why Do People Gamble?

by Dale Shelabarger Updated:

This is the first in a series of articles exploring the fundamental question: Why do people gamble?

Here, we take our cue from an unlikely protagonist, the pigeon. Over the past decade, at least 3 high-profile studies have been conducted at universities in the United Kingdom and North America on pigeons, to see how they react in slot-machine-like circumstances. If an equivalent of slot reels lined up, then the pigeons would be rewarded with food. In this article, Inside Casino examines this curious phenomenon and to see if the results get us any closer to understanding fundamental human psychological behavior.

Why Do People Gamble? - Human Nature

Gambling is in our nature. Every day, we, human beings, have to make decisions. Some are important and some are almost without consequence. Some require hours of soul-searching, of reflection and a weighty moral balancing act. There are some that require we delve into the archives of our history and memory for guidance. Others we make flippantly, unconsciously and without even realizing it.

This is free will and we exercise it, to some degree, every day. Our decisions have a constant bearing on our lives and livelihoods, as well as those around us; people we may or may not know. Apart from completely selfless acts, we make choices and devise various gambling strategies, that we believe to be the best for us.

Yet, the notion of what is best is completely subjective. It could be the most sensible option or the safest option. Perhaps, the option could reap the greatest rewards and change one’s life forever despite the risks involved. All human beings are gamblers to greater or lesser extents.

Why do people become addicted to gambling?

Scientists have become preoccupied with the pathological or problem gambler’s brain. Is it different? Do the synapses fire all at the right time? Do they see losses? Or do they blindly chase wins? And of those who enjoy the thrill of gambling, the dopamine hit, the adrenaline rush, the brewing anticipation; why can some stop when the fun stops, and others can’t?

Then, there are the cultural perceptions of gambling and when it is acceptable. Gambling can be a good laugh, like a kitschy trip to a real money casino with some cocktails on a night out. In addition, a cheeky flutter on the footy, the nags, or the pigeons is a frequent national pastime. But what of a figure slumped over a fixed-odds betting terminal in a cheaply lit high street shop, visible only partially through large skewiff posters?

I realize that I’ve posited too many rhetorical questions. But I’m going to posit one more. A hypothetical question. A “would you rather,” if you will….

What would you do?

You have a choice of two buttons and you have five pushes. One button, let’s say it’s orange, gives you a guaranteed $3 per push. Every time. No questions asked. Anyone with a little math acumen would be able to tell you that that is a guaranteed $15 in the bank. The other button, let’s say it’s purple, is much more volatile. There is a 1 in 5 chance that you’ll hit a $10 jackpot with every press. But 4 in 5, you’ll get nothing more.

Of course, the mathematicians, their brains whirring, will tell you that you could win up to $50 in 5 pushes. You could also win nothing. And you’re most likely to win $10. Which is $5 less than $15 (again, that’s advanced math).

So, what would you choose? And what is the right choice? Humans can reason their way into any combination of button pushes, arbitrarily weighing up the risk and reward binary.

Now, there’s no doubt we could just mull over these nurture vs nature vs culture questions all day. There must be a way to strip the conversation back to the essence.

Why Do People Gamble? - Pigeon Power

And this is where pigeons come in. And pigeons are important. By training and testing pigeons in “gambling” experiments, scientists are trying to get to the root of this very question. They want to ask, in the typically detached way that scientists do, what if all the baggage of being human, the razzmatazz of culture and entertainment, and the burden of unencumbered free will could be systematically stripped away?

Pigeons are proven to be intelligent animals, more so than many primates. They are relatively easy to procure and they can be trained under the conditions of an experiment. Therefore, pigeons are perfect candidates when we ask why do people gamble?

Yet despite its proven intelligence, “pigeon” is a common pejorative slang term among humans. According to the Google dictionary, a pigeon is “a gullible person, especially someone swindled in gambling or the victim of a confidence trick.” It is ironic that it should be the pigeon, then, to get to the essence of human gambling nature.

But let us humor the behavioral psychologists and the pigeon fanciers. Maybe through the lowly pigeon, we can learn why it is we are drawn to a flutter, a video slot, a spin of a live roulette wheel. Perhaps we can find the answer to this innate question; why do people gamble?

The Kentucky Study

The first prominent study of its kind was Thomas Zentall and Jessica Stagner’s 2010 University of Kentucky study entitled: “Maladaptive choice behavior by pigeons: an animal analog and possible mechanism for gambling.”

By training up their pigeons to equate certain visual stimuli with different-sized food rewards, Zentall and Stagner were able to monitor a pigeon’s behavior and decision-making. If pigeons pecked at a key with vertical lines, they had that 20% chance of winning 10 food pellets. But of course 80% chance of receiving none. If a bird pecked at a key emblazoned in horizontal lines, then it would receive three pellets every time.

The pigeons were familiarized with the conditions long enough to gain an instinctive understanding of what each key meant. Although pigeons probably can’t conceptualize that they’d receive 50% more pellets by choosing the horizontal line keys, they would sense instinctively that such an option would provide a more regular and reliable snack.

However, six out of the eight pigeons continued to peck at the vertical line key in the hope that they would hit the jackpot again and again. It seems like humans, pigeons have a… selective memory.

“The result suggests that the pigeons gave more weight to winning the jackpot and less weight to losing than optimally they should have,” Zentall explains.

This, Zentall continues, is the equivalent to the “impulse control disorder” that is frequently seen in pathological or problem gamblers. The weight of losses simply doesn’t register the way the thrill of a big win does. Therefore, the ability to make a balanced decision, where the positives can be weighed against the negatives, becomes impossible.

Why Do People Gamble?......To be continued in Part 2.

If you are concerned that you may be a pathological or problem gambler, then visit the following resources:



Gamblers Anonymous

If you have any questions about the issues raised in this article, please get in touch via our social media.

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