Hunting and gathering in the casino

Study looks at how human evolutionary history may dictate decision-making in activities of chance

Humans, for survival reasons, are designed to react and make decisions within the context of their surroundings.

In the real world this serves people well. In artificial, random environments, like those associated with gambling, a person's inherent desire to react to past experiences is a fruitless exercise.

In a recent study published by Frontiers in Psychology, researchers from McMaster University, the University of Lethbridge and Liverpool John Moores University suggest that betting decisions made by gamblers may be linked to the basic attention inhibitory processes used by early humans for their search activities (i.e. food).

Dr. Dan Weeks, a psychology researcher at the University of Lethbridge, says humans tend to inhibit their responses to targets which they have already responded to. In other words, humans have evolved to modify their behaviour based on what they experience in certain locations.

"Humans make rational decisions on a day-to-day basis based on experience. Think about someone picking apples in an orchard. Once the apples from the first tree are picked, it is a rational decision to move on to the next tree," says Weeks. "We decided to undertake this study to see if there was a correlation in an artificial environment like a casino. How do gamblers react if they win? What about if they lose?"

Researchers conducted two experiments to test this theory.

First, participants were asked to take part in a reaction test in which one of two targets was illuminated. The lighting of these targets was random but participants were able to react to lights after the fact. Researchers then gave the participants two dollars worth of nickels and asked them to bet on the outcome before the targets were illuminated. Researchers found that participants maintained the amounts of their bets regardless of whether they won or lost. But in instances where they won, they were more likely to move their bets to the other target for their next wager.

In a second test, participants took turns undertaking the same test with a partner. As was the case in the initial experiment, players maintained the amount of their bets regardless of whether they won or lost. What was interesting is that after observing their partner guess right on a certain target, participants were more likely to move on to the next target when their turn came.

Lead author, Dr. Jim Lyons, a kinesiology researcher at McMaster University notes that there are several exciting implications resulting from the study.

"The results suggest, perhaps for the first time, that certain aspects of problem gambling behaviour may be related to basic, neurobiological factors that drive the orienting of attention," says Lyons. "Of even greater interest perhaps is how this relationship is strongest in social settings where watching whether another person wins or loses influences how you bet."

Co-author Dr. Digby Elliott comments that "these are also important findings because they suggest that, at least in some cases, these behaviours might be resistant to current behavioural intervention strategies."

The research team plans to continue this research by looking at how this sort of behaviour may change as people age,, since there is considerable evidence to suggest that problem gambling can be particularly acute in elderly populations.

The Frontiers article can be found at