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The psychology of gambling

Gambling is a bad financial decision. Most of us know that it’s a game that–at least in regulated places such as casinos–you can only win if you happen to be lucky. The odds are always against you. So why do people love it? In essence, because our brains are programmed to.

Psychology has examined how gambling, and the pursuit of rewarding activities in general, works. Just as there are different types of reward (and punishment), there are different schedules for doling it out: fixed interval, fixed ratio, variable interval, and variable ratio. Consider a rat that gets a food pellet sometimes when it presses a lever. In fixed interval, its gets a pellet every half-hour, say, no matter how many times it’s pressed the lever. In fixed ratio, it gets the pellet every ten lever presses. In variable interval, it gets the pellet after a random amount of time has passed, and in variable ratio, it gets the pellet after a random number of lever presses.

Researchers have used just this sort of setup to find out which type of schedule creates the most addictive behavior. They delivered the reward according to whatever schedule that rat was assigned to. Then, when the rat understood the setup, they stopped delivering the reward.

Rats in the variable ratio schedule pressed their levers the longest after the rewards stopped coming. If you think about it, it makes sense. If you know you’re supposed to get a reward after thirty minutes, or after thirty lever presses, you’ll stop. But if you think that just one more lever press might do it, you hang on longer.

This is exactly why gambling is so peculiarly addictive. It’s not like, say, constructing model airplanes, where if you know if you put in the time you’re sure to be rewarded, or like unpaid overtime at work when you know you won’t. The sweetness of gambling is the unexpected payoff. If you stop, you’ll never know if the next lever press, or hand of cards, would have rewarded you.

There’s a physiological reason that that unexpected reward is so appealing, and why we’re willing to give up time and effort and money for the chance of getting it. I’ll write about that. Sometime in the next few posts.

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4 Responses to “The psychology of gambling”

  1. Kian Gray says:

    pyschology is a very interesting branch of science, it deals with the inner workings of the mind;-“

  2. Mirrored Furniture %0B says:

    when i was still in high school, i always planned to take pyschology because it gives me great interest ,-*

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  4. Vincenzo Wannamaker says:

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