New research from an international team of scientists
suggests evolution, or basic survival techniques adapted by early humans,
influences the decisions gamblers make when placing bets.
The findings may help to explain why some treatment options
for problem gamblers often don't work, the researchers say.
How the study was
For the study, recently published in Frontiers in Psychology, scientists from McMaster University, the
University of Lethbridge and Liverpool John Moores University examined how
gamblers made decision after they won or lost.
They found that, like our ancestors, the gamblers relied on
their past experiences to predict what might happen in the future. But in games
of chance where the outcome is completely random, this strategy doesn't work.
"If you are tossing a coin and it turns up heads five
times in a row, we have this strong feeling that it will turn up tails on the
sixth try," explains Jim Lyons, an associate professor of kinesiology at
McMaster University and lead researcher on the project. "But the chances
are still exactly 50-50."
"The results of our work suggest, perhaps for the first
time, that certain aspects of problem gambling behaviour may be related to
hard-wired, basic neurobiological factors related to how we direct our
attention," he says.
Researchers conducted two experiments to test their theory.
First, participants were asked to observe two targets being
illuminated in random sequence. The researchers then gave them money to bet on
which target would be illuminated.
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 experiment, participants undertook the same test
with a partner. Like the first experiment, players maintained the amount of
their bets regardless of whether they won or lost. If their partner correctly
guessed a target, they were more likely to move on to the next target when
their turn came.
Dan Weeks, a psychology researcher at the University of
Lethbridge, says humans have evolved to modify their behaviour based on what
they experience in the context of their location.
"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," he says.
"These are also important findings because they suggest
that, at least in some cases, these behaviours might be resistant to current
behavioural intervention strategies," says co-author Digby Elliott,
professor of motor control and behavioural neurosciences at Liverpool John
Moores University and professor emeritus at McMaster.
Next, the team plans to examine how this sort of behaviour
may change as we age, since evidence suggests problem gambling can be
particularly acute in the elderly.