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Gambling: Human's Favorite Pastime

Updated: Feb 22, 2023

Rob Scalise & Jennifer Nguyen

Playing different gambling games

At this point, it's evident that humans love to gamble. People are thought to first start gambling in 3000 BC. Regulated across religions and governments, gambling is constantly scrutinized and ever popular. By now, almost everyone knows they surely lose more than they win. The odds are stacked against you in all significant gambling games. Yet, in 2021 alone, Nevada casinos racked up $13.4 Billion in gaming revenues, and even more in 2022. The house always wins!

So often, with humans, what makes us great also gets us in trouble. Gambling may be one of the only legal ways to make quick money without "working." But there is much more beyond the lure of quick fortunes and lazy "risk-taking behavior" analysis that contribute to its intrigue. It isn't just algorithms and bright lights. Gambling creates unique conditions that can make us behave in ways we might not normally act. In any form, gambling games are hijackers, taking over our behavior by mimicking favorable conditions we usually gravitate to.

For many, this could just mean a fun night out trying to win a little money, no big deal. For some, that's all there is to do, and for others, it's all they want to do. Regardless, there are forces in play that give us insight into what happens with our behavior when we decide to up the ante.

Variable Rewards & Unpredictability

It's strange, yet gambling games use uncertainty and unpredictability to get us to act in predictable ways.

Everything is designed around comfort and access when you aren't gambling, letting us know they will always be here. The focus is just to get you inside, or because it's 2023, sign on to the app and start playing. They make us feel more at ease by giving out free money and tapping into our personal lives with themed games and referral bonuses.

However, once the cards are dealt, all bets are off!

Every gambling situation works around a critical concept - variability. This is often billed as excitement. In science speak, we typically call this variable, or intermittent, schedules of reinforcement. All things being equal, most animals and humans prefer rewards given on a spontaneous and more unpredictable schedule. Sure, we have our comforts and habits. Still, most studies show that uncertainty creates motivation to do something more, given reasonable limits. Think about it like this. You must choose between two identical slot machines. In game 1, you get $100 every 10 times you pull the lever. In game 2: $100 every 10 times, on average, you pull the lever. This means you might win after 2 lever pulls, but you're just as likely to win after 18 lever pulls. Most of us will not only prefer the second machine but will most likely spend more money on that machine over the long run.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but not surprising. Life often happens in unpredictable ways. Whether we enjoy it or not, from a young age, we are taught persistence. Whether we wanted a cookie, a good grade, or to save enough cash for a new pair of Jordans - we had to learn to do some work for an occasional reward. In general, this pays off for us. However, there are times when persistence can be detrimental. We all know that person who was just going to a play a few hands and returned 10 hours later…with nothing. Well, it's the one time they did that is still most likely controlling that behavior.

Derived Relational Responding

Derived relational what? We are naturals at making connections between events, even those we might not experience. Some species have gotten so good that they can create relationships between things they can't see, smell, hear, or taste. Hence, the derived relations. This type of learning is how we can understand abstract concepts like love and resentment.

We are doing this all the time. The lights, sounds, and uncertainty mean our senses are on full alert. Coupled with the fact that no one intends to lose, the stakes are high. This all leads to an increased motivation for these derived relations to occur.

The Near-Miss

One way this works against our odds is called the Near-Miss Effect. You hit on 16 and, bummer, turn a 6. That last Lucky 7 was so close to the line! So close! Well, you might not have won any money. Yet CONGRATULATIONS! You were rewarded with some uncertainty and a big fat rush of endorphins, and so was your gambling behavior. If the circumstances are right, this is often enough to keep you going. Casinos and gaming operators know this. This is also the basis for "mimicking" jackpots and big wins in slot machine games. Give us a little taste, so they can have the meal. But because most gambling games are based on chance, this happens naturally. Some of the best gambling stories come from bad beats and near misses, providing some more social rewards for our losing endeavors.

Not all of us, but enough, will convince ourselves the game is "due" to hit. Some even get more personal and say they are due. This is a derived relationship – the event that approximates the win is related to other concepts in that person's life – that certainly isn't present in gambling – like deserved, fair, and owed. However, as much you grind it out – it's still just chance running the show. In the words of an old friend (who often loses), "someone's gotta win!"


Never count your money when you are sitting at the table. I can feel it. It's heating up!

Our language plays a massive part in gambling's popularity. I mean, it's not likely you'll run into a group of dolphins shooting dice. They can make complex derived relationships, though!

It's no surprise that gamblers are often more prone to superstitious behaviors. Superstitions are usually a result of derived relations between serendipitous events. Say Steve played the slots on two different nights. He lost one night yet won big another. The difference? It had to be his favorite red shirt! Next time he is out, you better be sure Steve has that silly red shirt on. Not only does Steve attribute his winning to his red shirt, but he is also avoiding punishment, or rationalizing, for the losses. I knew it wouldn't work – where is my red shirt?

Even without superstitions, these self-made rules help us get through life, but they can also turn our behavior upside down. These rules most likely result in the many biases we express. They can be functional, like not eating after 7 pm, or quirky, like loading the dishwasher a certain way (the forks always face down!). However weird or unrelated, it is difficult to see other perspectives once a rule is reinforced or rewarded. Studies consistently show that humans will stick to their rules, even against obvious and more advantageous conditions. While an old dog can learn new tricks, it takes much more work.

Delay Discounting

Pigeons have FOMO, too. Most species do. Delayed discounting is a behavior pattern where someone consistently prefers a smaller sooner reward over a relatively larger reward in the future. Linked to impulsive behaviors and conditions like gambling addictions, obesity, and drug use – it has been studied in all types of animals. Living things don't like to wait, especially if they have something shiny in front of them. We want our gratification right now. Gambling games naturally take advantage of this behavioral feature. Like most things, they hijack it to get us to spend our money.

Every finance bro will be glad to tell you a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow, so what gives? This inclination toward immediate rewards has helped us survive everything from saber-toothed tigers to famines. The problem is, we don't deal with that stuff as much anymore. Another problem, events in the future aren't as tangible and are much weaker at gaining control of our behavior. We see this in our health and safety decisions and attitudes toward climate change.

Of course, some of us are better than others at holding our patience for the larger reward. Over the long run, you will often those people give into temptation in other parts of their lives, or else they'd be missing out on all the fun!

Gambling can be a serious issue that negatively impacts millions of people worldwide. Gambling addiction makes it difficult for someone to stop even when they know it's terrible for them. The concepts presented here work both ways. With support and help, these tools can help treat unhealthy gambling habits. But even if you're just an occasional enthusiast, it's obvious how gambling has become human's favorite pastime. Knowing when to hold 'em and fold 'em can be more complicated than it seems.

If gambling has become a problem for you or for someone you know, please call 1-800-522-4700 or chat at WWW.NCPGAMBLING.ORG/CHAT to seek free, confidential, 24/7 problem gambling assistance.

Jennifer Nguyen is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst in Orlando, FL.

Learn more about Rob Scalise

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