Out of Character

The surprising truths about the liar, cheat, sinner (and saint) lurking in all of us

Feeling Deprived? Beware of Casinos

Can feeling deprived lead to gambling?

As we often note, much of life comes down to weighing short- vs. long-term tradeoffs.  It can be difficult to resist what feels good in the here and now, but new research shows that just how difficult it is may depend on if you're feeling deprived.

Delay discounting refers a common phenomenon in which people tend to prefer smaller immediate rewards to bigger ones in the future.  For example, many people would prefer to take $100 today than $150 in two weeks, even though logically the $150 represents a better option in the long-run (where else can you be guaranteed to have a 50% increase in your investment in 14 days?).  Of course, from the "mind's" point of view, one could never be sure they'd be around two weeks from now (contracts and stock futures didn't exist on the ancestral savannah), so the logic of short-term options does make some sense. 

A new paper by Mitchell Callan, Will Shead, and James Olson shows, however, that the preference for short-term gain (and its relation to gambling) can be exacerbated by situational feelings of deprivation.  Put simply, the more deprived you feel vis-a-vis those around you, the more willing you are to take any chances for short-term gains that are presented.  In an initial experiment, the researchers manipulated people's perceptions of their relative financial standing with respect to those around them (by providing false feedback based on financial questionnaires completed by the participants).  The next presented them with several measures of discounting (e.g., "Would you rather have $250 now or $1000 in 365 days).  What they found is a much greater preference for discounted (i.e., immediate) awards among those who were feeling deprived.  They didn't care to analyze the equation in terms of long-term investment benefits; they wanted the money now.  In a second study, the team examined people's behavior outside the lab and found that those who reported a higher level of chronic feelings of deprivation also evidence increased delay discounting, which itself directly predicted increased gambling urges and behavior.

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To our mind, this finding itself may help to explain how people can get caught up in the moment of gambling itself -- the familiar fact that many people, once they start losing, gamble more and more in an attempt to gain benefits back.  As one looses money, a sense of deprivation necessarily follows, potentially leading to a vicious cycle.

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David DeSteno, Ph.D., directs the Social Emotions Group at Northeastern University.

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