Is Your Brain Wired to Help You Win or Lose at Gambling?

May 27

There is no question that gambling can be a lot of fun. In fact, this element of fun is what gets many people hooked on gambling in the first place. The visuals and sounds that usually come with betting games lift our spirits, and the thought of possibly experiencing a life-changing moment at the next turn of the wheel, the next hand of cards, or the next roll of the dice gives us a special thrill.

Now here’s what you probably never even thought about: Our brain reacts to that thrill that we get. The human brain enjoys that thrill, regardless of what the final outcome is. Whether we do end up with a huge payout or a significant loss, our brain tells us that the thrill was worth it, and we typically end up wanting more of that thrill.

There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to gamble, especially if you’re mainly in it for the fun. But how can you be sure that you won’t fall into the trap of wanting more and more, and starting to chase the wins rather than simply enjoying the experience? How do you make sure you don’t end up with a gambling problem like many others have unfortunately done? Can you ever be sure that you have your gambling habit under control? Will your brain work with you, or against you, in this regard?

Studying the Apes

In a bid to better understand how our brain reacts to various stimuli from gambling, biologists and behavioral scientists conducted two separate experiments involving our primate cousins. They were invited to the gaming table, and the results point to some very interesting similarities between their brain and ours, where our reactions to gambling are concerned.

In a study conducted by Georgia State University scientists, human volunteers, chimpanzees, and Capuchin monkeys were made to try a modified version of the Iowa Gambling Task. They called the test the Primate Gambling Task or PGT, and just like the IGT, it simulated real-life decision making.

Food containers with treats in them were stacked on a table, and the participants were asked to take one from five different stacks. The containers came with average payouts, and some of the stacks had steady stream rewards, while others offer rewards, but also came with a higher chance of not winning anything at all.

The second study, which was conducted by Duke University scientists, was a lot simpler. Wild-born chimpanzees and bonobos were studied to see if they were able to resist an instant reward and choose another option that offered them bigger rewards after a longer period of time, or nothing at all.

So, what did the studies show?

In the Georgia State University study, most participants soon learned to favor a low-variance, high-payout option. This means that almost all of them decided to play it safe. When the test was changed such that maximising payout and minimising variance now became conflicting strategies, that was when significant differences were seen. This time, about half of the participants chose to chase jackpots and go for riskier strategies, since the low variance options now produced smaller gains. The other half decided to stay with the low-risk options, even if they did not win as much as their risk-taking peers.

The results also showed that the chimpanzees and Capuchin monkeys made choices that were in line with the choices made by the human volunteers. Just like their human counterparts, they made choices they deemed beneficial, and their choices differed according to individual preferences. In other words, there were no decision making characteristics common to each species. What’s even more interesting is that the risk-taking and risk-seeking proportions were similar across species.

It was in the Duke University study that significant differences were seen. The results showed that chimpanzees were likelier to take a risk and choose to wait for a jackpot, rather than going for an instant reward. The bonobos, on the other hand, opted to go for the instant reward.

One of the explanations seen for this major difference is that bonobos typically live in greater abundance than chimpanzees. Chimpanzees typically need to adjust their hunting and food-gathering habits according to the seasons. Therefore, they have a better ability to wait for the perfect moment, and they are used to taking risks and getting bigger rewards.

This may also explain why humans are more willing to take risks and to gamble. Our species has survived unforgiving environments in the past, and we’ve seen that risks are often worth taking. Therefore, even when we are now living in relative comfort, people many of us still have that innate desire to seek bigger rewards, and they satisfy that desire through gambling.

The Psychology of Gambling

It’s easy to understand that the combination of the risk involved, the anticipation, and the thrill of winning makes gambling such an attractive activity for many people. But scientists wanted to know exactly what it is in our brain that compels us to wager. They wanted to understand how game designers use psychology to deliver those thrills and create anticipation.

When they studied the human brain and its response to gambling, this is what they saw:

The human brain has a series of circuits known as the reward system. When something good happens to us--like winning a prize--our brain sends signals that enable us to feel pleasure. Dopamine is also released, which makes us want to keep getting those rewards, therefore motivating us to keep doing the things that could potentially deliver the rewards.

However, when the brain’s reward system is activated too often, the dopamine that is released becomes weaker. A serious gambler would therefore start chasing wins, in hopes of raising dopamine levels again. As soon as the gambler wins again, he feels the pleasure and thrill that results from the activation of the reward system again, and he is caught in this vicious cycle of wanting to keep the pleasant experience going.

The scientists also found that risk and reward are among the elements that cause many people to constantly seek the thrill of placing bets and anticipate the rush of winning. It’s easy to understand how the prospect of getting a huge reward can be a powerful motivation for someone to gamble, but believe it or not, there are also people whose primary motivation is not the anticipation of rewards, but the fear of loss.

The second type of gambler is called loss-averse. When they experiences a loss, they become so concerned about that loss that they feel they have to keep playing until they are able to recover whatever amount they lost. For these people, the hurt of the loss is always deeper than the thrill of the win.

Dr. Luke Clark from the University of British Columbia Department of Experimental Psychology also studied how most gamblers overestimate their chances of winning, as well as how personal choice and near-misses affect us. He found that most of those who gamble enjoy the “illusion of control”. They think they can use their skills to create a favorable outcome, when in fact, the outcome of a gamble is almost always defined solely by chance.

You vs. Your Brain

Considering everything that scientists have found about how our brains react to the various stimuli provided by gambling, we can easily see that our brain is wired for us to fail. That is, unless we learn how to take control and use it properly. If we just continually act according to how we feel as a result of the chemical reactions happening in our brain when we experience the thrill of winning or the fear of loss, then gamblers will never stop chasing wins.

If you want to win in the fight versus your brain’s natural tendency to lead you to failure, then you would do well to take note of the following points:

You are hard-wired to strive.

The way our brain is wired has us constantly looking for things to accomplish and working to improve our current situation. This can be a good thing, of course, but the problem with this natural desire in us is that it leaves almost no space for contentment in our lives. We are always on the lookout for the next high. You always have another goal to achieve, another race to win, and another reward to gain.

This constant desire to achieve more plays a significant role in a gambler’s act of continuing to bet well beyond reasonable limits. What we need to realize is that whatever it is we are chasing will only give us that pleasantly thrilling feeling for a short time. We have to start focusing our energies not on chasing those wins, but in learning when to stop. It is when we learn to stop that we can truly start appreciating the entertainment that gambling provides, and we will learn to savor our wins and cut our losses.

You have a “hungry ghost” in you.

There is a Buddhist legend about an ephemeral creature that constantly moans for food, as its hunger is never satiated. There is something in us that is like this eternally hungry ghost, and one example is that fear of ending a gambling session with a loss. We keep playing in hopes of recovering our losses and ending the gambling session on a win, or at least not having lost anything. In many cases, we end up losing a lot more than we would have if we had only known when to stop.

Every time you are tempted to chase wins or losses when you gamble, you need to take some time to pause and ask if you really need to keep betting, or if that need you feel is nothing more than the hungry ghost in you. If you’ve already won, be grateful for the win. If you’ve already lost, take a moment to weigh--as objectively as possible--whether you can afford to risk more that day or if it’s time to stop.

You need to take control of the hot and cold empathy gap.

Our emotions have what is known as the cold state, which is when we are feeling calm or relaxed. It also has a hot state, which is when we are angry, hungry, in pain, or excited. Although these two states are normal, scientists found a bit of a problem--there is a gap in our ability to correctly predict how we will behave when our state is altered.

For example, when you are in a cold state, just chilling at home, you can’t say for sure how you will react if you suddenly hear about a one-day-only mega sale at the mall. You might say you’ll stay at home, since there really isn’t anything you need to buy, but when it does happen, you just might react differently.

It is usually when we underestimate the influence of our hot state on the choices we make that we tend to make poor choices; we either overreact or overspend. The good news is that once you are aware of this existing gap, you are already in a better position to prevent the gap from leading to disastrous decisions. You can plan for what to do in case you win as well as what to do in case you lose before you even start gambling.

All studies point to the idea that there must be an evolutionary explanation as to why we enjoy gambling so much. But just because your brain tells you to gamble because it can bring intense levels of pleasure, doesn’t mean you should overdo things.

Yes, we like to win. But having the desire to win does not necessarily mean that our brain is wired to win. In fact, studies have shown that our brain can be traitorous, as it is wired to lead us to poor decision making that will ultimately lead to losses.

For this reason, you need to learn how to rewire your brain. Take advantage of your cold states to prepare for all possible hot states. Learn to recognise the call of the hungry ghost and develop the strength of will to resist feeding it. Continue working to improve your circumstances, but also learn the value of contentment.