Psychological Aspects of Gambling

– by Will Shead, Ph.D.

Gambling is potentially harmful by its very nature and by aspects that are manipulated to increase the addictive properties of gambling activities. This summary will cover just a few of the psychological aspects of gambling that promote sustained and high-risk betting behaviour.

Gambling as a form of Operant Conditioning

Gambling is based on simple learning principles. One form of learning is “operant conditioning” in which the basic tenet is that organisms respond to rewards and punishments such that a desired response is more likely to occur following a reward and an undesirable response is less likely following a punishment. The likelihood of a response is more likely following a reward and an undesirable response is less likely following a punishment. The strength and persistence of a response following a reward varies according to “reinforcement schedules” as described by experimental psychologist B.F. Skinner whose initial work on operant conditioning involved rats. Skinner examined the response rates of rats after they had been rewarded with food pellets after pushing a lever according to different reinforcement schedules.

  • A “continuous” reinforcement schedule means that the response is rewarded every time it is made (e.g., every time you put a quarter in a gumball machine you get a gumball). A “fixed interval” schedule means that the response is rewarded after a predictable time period (e.g., you receive a paycheck every two weeks).
  • A “variable interval” schedule means that the response is rewarded after an unpredictable period of time centred around a mean (e.g., you go fishing a leave your lure in the water, you might catch a fish after 15 minutes and the next fish after 45 minutes, and on average, you catch a fish every 30 minutes).
  • A “fixed ratio” schedule means the response is rewarded after a predictable number of responses (e.g., you receive $10 for every five widgets you make).
  • Finally, a “variable ratio” schedule means that the response is rewarded after an unpredictable number of responses centred around a mean number of responses (e.g., a door-to-door salesperson makes their first sale at the fifth house they visit, then at the fifteenth house they visit, and on average, make a sale every ten houses).

Gambling works on a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement. When someone gambles, they are rewarded with a win after an unpredictable number of bets placed. For example, someone playing bingo might have a general idea that they will win about every 50 games that they play. They might win on their 5th game played or they might win on their 100th game played or more.

The fact that gambling works on a variable ratio schedule makes it particularly difficult to “extinguish” betting behaviour. Indeed, Skinner found that the rats that had experienced variable-ratio reinforcement were far more likely to continue pressing a lever in hopes of receiving a reward long after food pellets had ceased being allotted. With other schedules of reinforcement, it becomes quickly apparent that a response is no longer being rewarded and the behaviour stops. With a variable ratio schedule, the behaviour typically persists as the organism is testing whether another response might do the trick just as a gambler believes that “one more bet” might be the winning one. This very basic psychological principle underlies all gambling behaviour.

Psychological Manipulation

Gambling operators seize on the vulnerability of gamblers by manipulating aspects of their games to increase their addictive qualities. Slot machines provide ample opportunities to alter variables encouraging persistent play. One feature is known as “near misses” which is when the outcome of a bet is made to appear that it was close to a win but is a loss. Slot machines are designed with all kinds of themes and flashy game play (which is a whole other kind of manipulation to draw in players) but the general idea is that when a bet is made on a slot machine and multiple icons match up in a line, the player wins.

Near misses occur when it appears that several but not all icons match up, suggesting that while the player did not win, they were close. Having “nearly missed” a win, it entices the player to continue betting as the next bet might be a winner. Of course, modern slot machines operate on a random number generator such that the outcome of a bet is determine the instant a bet is made and the “closeness” of the end result is inconsequential – the player either won or loss on that bet and whether it appears to have been almost a win has no bearing on future outcomes. There is some speculation that slot machines and other gambling products are designed to result in a disproportionate number of near misses relative to random results to encourage persistent gambling behaviour.

A related tactic is “losses disguised as wins” which occurs with slot machines when the net result of a bet is a loss but the player still wins something less than the amount bet. Slot machines can often be played for a wide array of denominations and “line combinations” in which a win is determined by the number of icons matched up in a multitude of patterns across a large matrix of spin outcomes. As the number of line combinations increases, so does the likelihood of winning something on an individual spin.

A loss disguised as a win would occur when there is a win but the total amount bet on a spin exceeds the amount wagered. For instance, if someone makes a 5-cent bet denomination at 20 different line combinations ($1 total bet) and they end up winning 30 cents each on two different line combinations, they “win” 60 cents but have incurred a net loss of 40 cents ($1 – 60 cents). Often, the slot machine will include animations and sounds to reinforce the small win which overlooks the fact that a loss has occurred.

Gambling operators also encourage gamblers to engage in faulty thinking that increases gambling behaviour. A good example is digital display boards posted next to roulette wheels in casinos. Roulette is a simple game in which a ball is spun around a wheel that is partitioned into slots containing typically 38 numbers (18 red numbers, 18 black numbers, a green “0”, and a green “00”). Players place wagers on a layout to predict which number the ball will land in on the next spin. Of course, each spin is completely random and independent from any other spin. Previous outcomes have absolutely no bearing on future outcomes. The casinos are fully aware of the unrelatedness of these outcomes.

However, casinos provide digital display boards that track the outcomes of the previous 16 outcomes ostensibly to provide information to gamblers to inform how to bet on future spins. This information gives an “illusion of control” regarding the outcomes of random events and encourages gamblers to identify patterns that do not exist. Similarly, casinos provide scoresheets to baccarat players to keep track of previous outcomes for a game that is essentially a “coin flip” (i.e., the typical outcome in baccarat is either “player” or “banker” and is completely random regardless of what happened in previous hands).

The casinos know that the information provided by display boards in roulette and scorecards in baccarat are absolutely useless and only serve to encourage faulty thinking that increases harmful gambling behaviours.

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