Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Why Do People Gamble Too Much?

Are problem gamblers motivated by the money or the thrill?

I grew up in Central New Jersey.  When I was about 10, the state legalized casino gambling in Atlantic City, making it the only place on the East Coast of the US at that time where people could gamble legally. I have some relatives who live near Atlantic City.  There are lots of cheap buses to get there from all over the New York and New Jersey area, and so I would hop on with all of the gamblers to go visit family. The ride down was always tense with anticipation, but the ride back had lots of tired and dejected gamblers. I always felt like many of those people on the bus with me had real gambling problems.

What exactly is it that drives people to gamble too much? 

Intuitively, it seems like there are two possibilities. One is that people with gambling problems are focused on the thrill of gambling. When you walk through a casino, there are lights and bells and the sounds of people winning money. There must be a real jolt when your number comes up on a roulette table, or the bars all align on a slot machine. 

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Of course, another possibility is that gamblers are just focused on the money. They want to win money and gambling seems like a way to do it.

An interesting paper by Cheryl Hahn, Tim Wilson, Kaichen McRae, and Dan Gilbert in the October, 2013 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin explored these two possibilities. 

As a measure of the vulnerability to problem gambling, they asked participants to fill out the Gambling Attitudes and Beliefs Survey, which has been used in past research.  This scale asks people to rate their agreement with statements like “I know when I’m on a streak” and “If I lose, it is important to stick with it until I get even.” 

In one study, participants were given the gambling survey. Later, they were given a chance to play what seems like a strange gambling game. Two decks of cards were placed in front of them. One deck had 9 red cards and 1 black card. The other deck had 5 red cards and 5 black cards. At the start of each trial, the decks were shuffled and placed face-down on the desk. Participants could choose which deck they wanted a card drawn from. If the card was red, they would get 10 cents.  If the card was black, they would get nothing. The game was repeated for 20 trials. A second group was shown the experimental situation, but they just predicted how may cards they would want to take from each deck over the course of the study.

Economically, it seems clear that participants should always choose from the deck with 9 red cards, because they have the best chance of winning when they draw from that deck.  If they choose often from the deck with only 5 red cards, then they must value the suspense of whether they will win and the thrill of winning despite lower odds. 

People who scored highly on the gambling survey predicted that they would choose somewhat more cards from the risky deck (with 5 red cards) than people who scored low on the gambling survey.  In actuality, though, people who scored high on the gambling survey actually chose fewer cards from the risky deck on average than those who scored low on the survey. 

That is, these results suggest that people who scored highly on the gambling survey were more interested in the money than in the potential thrill of beating the odds. The researchers obtained a similar result in a second study.

In one final study, participants who had filled out the gambling survey were given 3 minutes to do a series of math problems. Some people were told that they would be paid 5 cents for each problem they got correct.  Others were given no monetary incentive.  The people who got a low score on the gambling survey answered about the same number of items correctly regardless of whether they were being paid.  Those who got a high score on the gambling survey answered more questions correctly on average when they were being paid than when they were not. 

Putting these results together, it suggests that people who are vulnerable to problem gambling are more strongly motivated by obtaining money than by the suspense of gambling or the thrill of winning.

Of course, this finding was obtained with college students, and there may have been few real problem gamblers in this sample.  As the researchers point out, the stakes in this situation were also low.  More work still needs to be done to see whether this focus on winnings over the thrill of gambling holds up in further studies.

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Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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