If you’re not a big gambler, or even if you are, you might’ve wondering why gambling is so popular?
Aside from being a fun, controllable vice that pairs well with sports-watching hobby, a way to spend time with friends, or a (hey, it can be) substance-free vice, gambling and psychology go together like peanut butter and jelly.
We’re here to take a look at the psychology behind gambling—Why we love it, what gambling does to your brain, and what makes us come back to the casino, time & time again.
Psychology & Uncertainty
Growing up in my small city, I once took a city tour with my elementary-grade class, and remember our tour guide explaining something to us about the local casino — “When you go in there, there are no clocks on the wall, so you can’t keep track of time and spend more money.”
Now, this was before it was the norm for everyone to have a cell phone, so maybe I’d receive this differently in a couple of years – but at the time, it seemed like a genius notion. Little did I know, there were plenty of tactics used by casinos to lull you into a timeless state, their main strategy to get you gambling – For example, window-less rooms and cheap alcohol.
But would you be surprised to find out this is just the tip of the iceberg? Turns out, our own brains have a big hand in getting us to play risky hands (See what we did there?), bet on sports and play casino games.
Your Brain on Gambling
Like we mentioned, casinos’ preferred strategy to get people placing wagers on sports and playing games is typically to ‘play’ with time, in a way that makes your brain lose sense of exactly what time, or what time of day it is—Another factor that gets people gambling is humans’ fundamental inability to understand probability.
Now, if you’re on the same page as professional poker player Maria Konnikova, this understanding of probability can come in handy when playing a game of skill that requires wagering, like poker, or when analyzing the outcome of things like election polls. Essentially, even though probabilities can be low, this doesn’t necessarily mean you should count them out, or that they’re impossible to beat.
On the flip-side, however, we look at some of the other factors that we might have a little less control over – that is, what goes on in our brains when we gamble, and how that affects the human brain. For example, the Law of Effect.
How does the Law of Effect factor into gambling?
This law states that when humans perform repeated behavior, we look for rewards — For example, the original one-arm bandit slot machine was designed with a simple lever-crank the player would pull in order to see if the cards lined up as a match. Modern-day slot machines also use this principal design.
Even though a win isn’t guaranteed, it’s the potential of a win that keeps the brain enthralled, and gamblers pulling the metaphorical lever. The human brain, is essentially wired to expect a win in an unpredictable number of pulls—This is known as a variable ratio schedule. You don’t know when you’ll get a reward, but you expect it at some point when you pull the lever, or push the button.
What else factors into the psychology of gambling?
Another factor that goes into the psychology of gambling is something called the sunk-cost fallacy. Basically, humans are loss-averse, and will try to regain losses. So, if someone loses more than they planned on losing gambling, they might try to keep gambling to earn more money.
It’s worth nothing that this ‘sunk cost’ fallacy extends to more than just money, too – for example, some people might stick with a hobby they dislike, like playing an instrument, just because they’ve sunk a considerable amount of time and money on it.
An extension of this, the gamblers’ fallacy is quite similar—Essentially, players have spent so much time gambling, that they believe a win must be just around the corner. This is just one reason why managing your bankroll is so important, and not wagering more money than you can afford to lose.
Another factor you might be less familiar with is availability heuristic or availability bias. Availability bias or heuristic is simply a humans’ likelihood to think whatever pops into their mind initially is the most relevant information.
For example: Let’s look at the fear that gripped people after seeing Jaws—many people who were unafraid to swim now found themselves terrified of the ocean. Instead of looking up how many shark attacks happen each year (or even at the place they’re swimming), all they can think of is an impending shark attack. This is an example of availability heuristic.
This could technically work both ways when playing at the casino, for example—If you remember that news story featuring a big winner in your local lotto recently, you might be inclined to gamble more. You might be less inclined to gamble if the first thing you think of is your last big loss.
Another way your brain can cause you to spend more time (therefore, money) in a casino is the design. Typically, they have a maze-like design, window-less rooms and strategic bathroom placement that requires patrons to walk past all their games, which can lower inhibitions, therefore getting you gambling longer.
What else does your brain do while gambling? Well, when you get a ‘reward’ (think a win) your brain releases dopamine, which leads to your brain graving more of it. Another chemical your brain releases during gambling (and many other activities) is adrenaline, that ‘rush’ you feel when placing bets or making a wager.
The psychology of casinos involves the design of the physical space – which is one reason online casinos can give the player more control over their gaming experience, since you can gamble anywhere, anytime – hey, even in the bathroom. We don’t judge.
There are many ways your brain works in conjunction with gambling, like releasing dopamine, losing sense of time and making you believe you’ll be luckier, or unluckier than you truly are.
It’s important to manage your bankroll carefully, set time limits, set an alcohol limit and adjust your physical environment if possible – if you know what to expect or the psychological effects gambling has on your brain, you can ‘prep’ yourself for a safe, fun and responsible gambling experience.