Gambling Psych 101

In my historical research into gambling, I’ve yet to find the Grand Unification Theory of gambling–exactly why people like to gamble so much. It’s a little reassuring to know that psychologists aren’t that much closer. Still, they, like historians, have a pretty good idea that humans like to gamble, even when it isn’t in their best interest. From Psychology Today:

Gambling plays on at least two human universals: the urge to get something for nothing and the difficulty of giving up that dream, no matter how high the stakes or the odds against it.

Winning vs. Recouping Losses

For most of human prehistory, living through the night was not a given. For this reason, goes the evolutionary hypothesis, our ancestors learned to take what we’d now consider murderous chances in pursuit of food and mates. Those who continuously gambled and won became our forebearers, passing on a taste for the “off chance.” The possibility that a big score could be just around the corner, but you never know where or when you’ll hit on it, parallels modern gambling: One more rock overturned and you find dinner.

When you start losing, the darker side of that equation asserts itself: “One more roll and I’ll recoup my money” becomes a formula for huge losses. No one is exempt. Remember the Barings Bank fiasco, in which the Rolls Royce of British banking was felled by a lone trader who kept making bad bets on derivatives, desperate to dig himself out of a hole? His gut overrode his training. We’re all vulnerable to this risk instinct, the feeling that “I can and must recoup my losses.”

For our ancestors, it was actually risky to avoid risk altogether. Sometimes the next big score really is just around the corner. If you find an edible critter behind one in 50 rocks, your foraging pays off, especially when the terrain is safe.

In this case, one in 50 is excellent odds because you’re in a low-risk, potentially high-yield situation. It’s sort of like online dating: Meeting 10 people for coffee is not a huge imposition, especially since you could be finding your future partner.

Playing the slots is designed to feel similarly risk-free, but in reality it’s high-risk, low-yield, at least in the long run. You’re practically guaranteed a net loss and have only the slimmest shot at the jackpot. Another disadvantage: Gambling doesn’t teach you anything new, whereas the risks our ancestors took for survival had a steep learning curve—after overturning four dozen rocks, you’ve identified some helpful patterns.

Money is a relatively new concept for the human species. We learn about it the way we learn to read or play the piano—with effort. For most of us, money makes scant intuitive sense. We understand trade, but fiat value eludes us. A diamond is vastly more valuable than a cup of water, until you’re dehydrated. So which has more “value?” We learn to contextualize money because it’s not natural to think in mathematical abstractions.

Psychology Today: Gambling: The Pipe Dream Payoff

The article goes on to warn gamblers against chasing losses. It argues that gambling is high-risk and low-yield, but I wonder if that is entirely true. If one considers the enjoyment of the gambling experience itself a reward, then gambling must be at least moderate-reward. And if the gambler only wagers money he has already earmarked for that entertainment, the risk is low, since the money is already “spent.” It’s all in the perspective.

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