Psychology’s Best Answer

The main purpose of this blog is to give the gambling industry a hard time. Essentially, I’m poking it with a stick whittled and sharpened by the pen knife of psychology. Unfortunately, it is a bent and rusty blade.

My experience is that psychologists love to disagree and are dangerously over-invested in their own pet theories. If you want a good example of this, read up on the replication crisis facing social science. In short though…

Decades of scientific malpractice have led to unproveable conclusions due to poor methodology and the need to generate headline-worthy results. A 2015 review found only 36% of psychological findings from the most prestigious and (supposedly) reliable journals could be re-produced under best practice conditions.

That means if you came across a pop psychology piece on TV or print in the last 30 years, it’s more likely to have been wrong than right. To put it politely, that is a despicable performance. Bluntly, it’s a peas-poor shipshow of a custerfluck.

The insight I’m writing about today, though, is exempt from that scrutiny, because it can’t easily be empirically tested. Perhaps that makes it the least scientific insight, but for me it is the most useful contribution of modern psychology: the evolutionary perspective.

That’s the view that our behaviours were shaped, and can be explained, by the survival pressures we faced over the tens of thousands of years of our existence. It is predicated on the belief that, above all, humans want to survive and to pass on their genes to the next generation. Unproveable perhaps, but not exactly a controversial premise.

It’s the sort of thing we should have worked out within months of Darwin stepping ashore from his dream cruise to the Galapagos Islands, but it only really gained much traction in the 90s. Even today it seems to exist on the fringes of psychology; neglected as an uninteresting and irrelevant explanation.

Gad Saad is a high-profile proponent of this view and has given some excellent interviews on the subject (here he is talking to Joe Rogan). His go-to example – why are we so attracted to sugary and fatty foods?

Because they’re a great source of calories (therefore energy) in a hunter-gatherer world where the next meal was not guaranteed. Those of our ancestors that gorged when they could were the ones that survived when food ran low. They passed this strategy onto their descendants, and now we’re fat.  

The same beautifully straightforward thinking can be applied to gambling. Evolutionary psychology is broad enough to explain both why we gamble, and why we don’t.

Our most primal human desire is to survive, and survival is best achieved through caution and the continued ownership of important resources (food and security). Humans that maintained access to good foraging, fresh water and a defensible position were the ones with the best shot at not dying.

Millenia of this preservation instinct has manifested itself in modern day Loss Aversion – the deep-seated but often irrational desire (e.g. hoarders) to keep what we have. My earlier blogs (describing the emotional disparity between losing and winning) fall under this area of study, and there’s plenty more to be said on it in future.

In short, most people don’t want to speculate to accumulate; they are hard-wired to protect what they have. This explains why problem gambling, although a very serious problem, isn’t more widespread. It affects 1-2% of the worldwide population, which is low compared to the prevalence of speeding, obesity or, more disgustingly, STDs.

So how can evolutionary psychology explain those outliers? Well, there comes a time when ‘standing pat’ is not going to cut it. Sometimes a resource becomes scarce, and the status quo is just going to result in a hopeful but slow death. That’s where the risk-takers come in.

There is a part of the brain designed to encourage speculative behaviour. There are several important components with very sciencey names (e.g. the ventromedial prefrontal cortex) but it’s enough for our purposes to call it the Reward System. It’s the exact same system that loves drugs and alcohol.

When a risky behaviour is undertaken, there is a release of dopamine that makes you feel good. It’s your brain’s way of saying “this could be advantageous, do that again”, and it applies to both personal survival and the need to procreate.

The survival threats of our pre-historic ancestors would have been many and varied, with genuine life-or-death consequences. Without this danger-defying neurological mechanism we would have been meek, defenceless, and almost certainly wiped out.

But times have changed. Nowadays, most people only need worry about money. If you have it, then you can afford all the other things you need to happily exist. It is therefore the main risk outlet for the minority of the population that descend from our ancestral chancers. It’s either that or bungee jumping.

The gambling industry has happily grown to meet and exploit this largely outdated drive. They are taking advantage of an evolutionary malfunction in the same way that McDonalds sells us unpleasant but moreish trays of trash in the guise of food. The rational human part of our brain knows it is bad, but the older monkey part wants numnums.

This situation explains why it is those that can least afford to gamble that tend to do so. They are the ones with the least resources, and thus the most to gain from an improvement in their circumstances. There’s not far to fall when you’re already at the bottom, so you may as well roll the dice.

Lotteries are the most glaring example of this. Their reputation as being a stealth tax on the poor is utterly justified. I’ll turn my pointy stick on that form of gambling at some point, it’s a particularly interesting product.

I’ve digressed. But then I’m not sure I had a specific point in the first place. I just wanted to lay foundations for future topics and perhaps shed some light on what appears to be inexplicably destructive behaviour. Gambling is stupid, but at least now you know why some of us do it anyway.

Finally I want to be clear, I’m not saying that only people with a gambling gene are vulnerable to addiction. All of us have the same biological machinery in our heads and anyone can fall under the spell of risk. But genetically some are more vulnerable than others, and our circumstances take care of the rest. Responsible gambling solutions must take both nature and nurture into account.

Bobby’s Bets

I was deep in Louisiana Bayou country during the Masters and so didn’t get any bets on. That’s just as well because I don’t think I’d have come close to picking the top finishers. Money well saved.

While I was there, I made a rare appearance in a poker game. It was a stud-based dealer’s choice game with a $20 buy-in. I don’t know a term for the unconventional betting structure, but as long as you bet in 25c or 50c increments no-one seemed to mind. It was a ludicrous crapshoot, but I cashed out $10 ahead so I can now justifiably claim to be a winning player in the last five years.

I’m now in Costa Rica so I suspect my gambling fix will come from more stupid travelling prop bets.

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