We are all gamblers – Behavioral psychology behind gambling


Gambling is often associated only with casino games, but in fact it is every activity, decision and statement we say that includes potential reward, a risk connected, and something that we place on a bet that we might lose in the process. Provided that, gambling is wider in definition than just card games, casino online games, slot machines in local casino or sports betting. We gamble every day, in almost every aspect of our lives. Without the gambling particle in our mind, humanity might have never left caves, and sit in the dark without fire, too afraid to tame it.

Imagine the first person, who decide to create a bonfire. Fire is scary, it burns, destroy and consume everything. By trying to use it, this pioneer was risking their well-being, or even risking destruction of the surroundings. The reward was the ability to keep themselves warm, cook meat and have light to stay safe during the night full of nocturnal predators.

As you can see by looking at the example above, without our natural attraction to gambling, we would not be where we are today as a civilization. But how this attraction works? Why are we so keen to gamble with our money, health and sometimes life to gain something else?

Innate attraction to gambling – Examples and research

The most familiar example is connected with finances. We have savings accounts, they are safe bet – you put some money in the account, wait certain period, and you gain just a few dollars more. Safe, stable, but slow and low income way of getting additional money out of your salary. What about stock market? You can put the same amount as you would place in the saving account, but there is a difference – you can gain much higher income. Sounds great, right? Well, there is a risk involved, in which you may lose all your money.

If we were always to choose the safe bet, our finance system, as it is, would not exist. This ability and willingness to risk keeps our global market working, and not only finance is involved. Let us take a closer look at medicine and its development throughout the centuries. Doctors have always been the smart ones, ready to invent new ways to treat people, prevent diseases and operate, but they would have not been able to perform any of their new inventions, if not volunteers, ready to be some sort of “lab rats”, and risk with their own health and life to gain new, better way of healing for everyone.

Gambling and risking can be extended to describe jobs that seems to be selfless. Let’s take a firefighter as an example. There is a building in flames, there are people trapped inside, and the roof can collapse and kill everybody inside in every moment. A firefighter squad is standing outside, and they can always choose the safe bet to stay outside, try to tame the fire, and hoping that people outside will manage to survive. In most cases, no one will blame firefighters for not killing themselves in the attempt to save people. However, there is always a risky bet of storming inside the burning building, helping those people inside and risking that the roof might kill them all. The risk – collapsing roof, the bet – firefighter well-being and life, but what is the reward in this situation? One can say that the reward is these people life, while others might state that this is a certain level of firefighters satisfaction that they’ve gambled their life, and won.

These were all hypothetical situations, but let us bring a real, lab experiment proving the natural attraction to gambling hidden within ourselves. There is a monkey in the cage in front of the machine with two levers. After pulling the lever in the first hole, monkey is rewarded with a small dose of sugar. It is a safe bet. The amount of sugar is always the same, and it is tiny. What about the second lever? This one might provide the monkey with a big dose of precious sugar, but it also might shock the animal with electricity. This is the risky bet in this situation. As you probably guessed, monkey, aware of the terms of its situation, tends to pull the second lever to risk its well-being in order to gain more sugar.

What are the ways to control our gambling attraction?

It is natural that one person has a more spontaneous approach, and is more likely to risk in their life, while others can control their inner temptation to gamble to a better degree. How can people, who feels that they lose a grip of control, keep themselves on the safe side? Elise Payzan-LeNestour, financial professor at UNSW Australia Business School, has presented an interesting experiment during her performance at TEDxSydney event.

She prepared a “bowman game”, in which her students bet on the result of the shot from the bow. They can bet, which means they think the bowman will hit the target, or skip, when they wanted to pass the betting on this shot. The bowman in this game might be a novice or an expert, and there was a way to predict which of the two levels of expertise the bowman was after a few shots. In the first stage of the experiment, students tends to skip a few rounds to check if the bowman is novice or expert and then, if they were sure that they were betting on expert’s shots, they were more keen to press “Bet” button. This means that they were calculating the risk, and only if the risk was low enough for them, they bet.

What was even more interesting, in the second stage, Elise added two additional buttons letting her student to either skip the entire 20-shot session and not being able to bet on any shot of the bowman, or bet on every shot, making it the riskiest option in the entire game. Surprisingly, students opted for the skipping of the entire session. They were tying their hands to prevent themselves from surrendering to the gambling temptation.

Elise’s experiment is, in fact, the gambling world in the microscale in which you can gamble, you can skip, you can tie your hands and restrain from any form of risk, or go crazy and risk with everything you have. Her group of students was a fine testing group resembling the approach of the society that are willing to bet once, twice or trice, but restrain themselves entirely  if the risk is too big, with only individuals ready to risk it all.

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