Gambling has always been controversial in the eyes of many, for its addictive nature and moral incompatibility. Yet people continue to flock to Las Vegas to spend days at the slot machines, to listen to the clicking of the rotating cylinders and hopefully to hear the bells and whistles of a jackpot win. The rare possibility of winning big money is what draws crowds to casinos right?
Actually many factors go into the desire for gambling and as you may have guessed, mesolimbic dopamine plays a huge role, maybe an even larger one than the monetary incentives themselves. A recent article published in the Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience journal describes the research regarding what truly drives gambling.
Although slot machine jackpots seem disproportionately massive compared to the amount that each spin costs, the house still makes a profit. They are designed so that the (average) amount of money inserted before reaching a jackpot dwarves the worth of that jackpot. The net flow of money is still towards the casino and not into the collective pockets of gamblers. So if we ultimately lose at the end of the day, what draws us back time and time again, even after we spend more than our self-allotted amount of money? The article explores two aspects of gambling that, through dopamine, we become attracted to: the reward uncertainty and the losses themselves.
Many who gamble chronically often report feeling a euphoria quite similar to the one drug addicts feel during their highs. As they lose more and more, they stay resolute in continuing, a phenomenon known as “loss-chasing”. How could a negative response cause someone to consistently increase their desire for partaking in that activity? Research shows that although both chronic gamblers and healthy controls release the same amount of dopamine during wins, the chronic gambler is more susceptible to larger dopamine releases during losses. A decent amount of counter-intuitive logic backs this evidence, since after consecutive losses, they may falsely associate a better probability of winning with the next spin. Seeing these losses as “near misses”, it makes sense that the reward-seeking function of dopamine overpowers its pleasure-producing function. All of a sudden, the money no longer stands as the central attractive force of slot machines.
Sharing many parallels with losses, the presence of reward uncertainty actually magnifies the release of dopamine. Fundamentally, it’s the same reason why a veiled reward may create more motivation than a predetermined one. A host of psychological background research confirms this, including test results that show animals and humans responding much more vigorously to cues that signal undetermined or even uncertain rewards. Predictability bores us and according to the award-winning game designer Greg Costikyan, no game can interest the player unless some element of uncertainty is introduced. So slot machines take this concept and mold it into simple probability in order to keep the player intrigued and willing to spend more money.
These phenomenon regarding gambling extend into our everyday lives. Often times, we seek out small doses of innocuous risks, hoping that we score a huge prize, land a great job offer, or meet an amazing date. Each new “coin” inserted may take time, and even money but we keep on coming back to try our luck. Society has evolved to match this trend, with the creation of raffles, online sweepstakes, and other luck-based games, even though life itself can be seen as an elaborate slot machine (A slight stretch).
As always, we must stay cognizant of our own behaviors and stay away from regions of addiction, so that we don’t uncontrollably expend resources chasing elusive outcomes.