Recent studies show that primates enjoy gambling and delay satisfaction to achieve desired rewards which lead to new theories about human gambling.
Introduction to Monkey Gambling Facts:
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Throughout history people have gambled. The drive to take chances, rely on luck, combine luck and skill and use innocuous objects to test one’s good fortune seems to be an inborn trait. Archaeologists have found ancient cubes of dice that date back over 40,000 years and anthropologists have even found cave drawings of prehistoric man engaged in gaming activities. Keno, the popular lottery game which can be found at many of today’s land-based and online casinos, dates back 2000 years where the ancient Chinese called it “white pigeon.” Ancient Chinese history texts mention card and tile games.
Condemning gambling activities is also an ancient tradition. Greek philosophers spoke out against the “waste” of playing games, both for fun and for money. The Judeo-Christian tradition has also maintained a strong stance against playing games, though some scholars believe that there is mention of Game Theory in the Jewish Talmud, redacted almost two millennium ago. (see footnote 1).
In ancient Rome, gambling was practiced by all classes and, for a period of time, it was popular with the Roman Emperors. In almost every country, anthropological and archaeological evidence demonstrates clearly that gambling activities have always been popular.
Games of Chance
It’s clear that humans have a well-documented tendency to look for opportunities to play games of chance. It seems that a large part of any population (but not all) tends to see winning and losing streaks in situations which are, in fact, random. Researchers have long wished to determine whether this inclination is a disposition that’s picked up in childhood, culturally-based or a predisposition which is ingrained in our cognitive make-up.
Tommy Blanchard, a doctoral candidate in brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, had a hunch that the answer lies in humans’ cognitive make-up and to prove his theory, he led a team of researchers to examine decision-making in non-human primates in gaming situations. Preliminary results suggest that a tendency to look for (and see) patterns that don’t actually exist is an evolutionary adaptation which humans inherited from their primate forbearers. Researchers theorize that human pre-disposition to wager on situations of random chance may have been a survival technique in prehistoric times that provided our predecessors with a selective advantage in foraging for food in the wild.
Researchers believe that the inborn tendency to feel that we are “on a roll” can help explain why gambling is so alluring, why intelligent people risk their money in gambling activities and why people become addicted to their gambling. The University of Rochester researchers designed their study to determine whether the cognitive bias that humans display for betting may be difficult to override even in situations that they know, intellectually, are random.
Monkey’s Gambling Behavior
Blanchard’s team of researchers included Andreas Wilke, an assistant professor of psychology at Clarkson University and Benjamin Hayden, assistant professor brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester. The investigators set out to determine how and if monkeys will act based on a belief in winning streaks when presented with the opportunity. Their results were published in the July 2014 issue of Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition and go a long way towards helping researchers understand how human behavior in live casinos, online casinos and, indeed, in all gambling venues, is a result of inborn traits.
The research was based on the results of a 7-year-old project. In a 2005 article published in Nature Neuroscience, Duke University neurobiologist Michael Platt described a his study (footnote 2) which demonstrated monkeys’ propensity for gambling. The study demonstrated that, when the monkeys have the choice between receiving a steady reward or taking a chance, they will consistently choose to take the risk. This occurs even when they understand that they may lose their reward. According to this study it’s clear that non-human primates do indeed engage in – and enjoy — gambling
In the Duke study, male rhesus macaque monkeys were shown one of two lights on a screen. If they gazed at a “safe” light they received a fruit juice reward. If they gazed at a “risky” light, their juice reward would vary. As the game progressed the monkeys showed their preference for the risky behavior by gazing at the “risky” light more often. These monkeys wanted to gamble.
Even when the parameters of the study were changed, first with the payoff for the risky light being less than for the safe light and then to determine the monkeys’ behavior after a series of losses, the monkeys continued to gamble with their rewards.
When the researchers wired electrodes into the monkeys’ brains they determined that neurons activity increased as the monkeys increased their risky target. Lead researcher Platt noted that “the activity of these neurons paralleled the behavior of the monkeys. They looked like they were signaling, in fact, the monkeys’ subjective valuation of that target.”
Platt summarized the study by saying “It seemed very, very similar to the experience of people who are compulsive gamblers. While it’s always dangerous to anthropomorphize, it seemed as if these monkeys got a high out of getting a big reward that obliterated any memory of all the losses that they would experience following that big reward.”
In the Rochester project the researchers created three different types of play paradigms. In two of the types of play, the correct answer repeated frequently. The third play type involved an invitation to make a choice in which the correct answer was random.
As the monkeys played, they quickly guessed the correct sequences where clear patterns existed but, in the random play type, the monkeys continued to make their choices in a way that suggested that they expected to experience a “lucky streak.” Even when their rewards were random, the monkeys continued to favor the “risky” side.
The monkeys demonstrated what is known, in gaming circles, as a “hot-hand bias” This phenomena, also known as a hot-hand fallacy” or a “hot hand phenomenon” had only been related to humans up until this point but the Rochester study showed that monkeys also seem to believe that, when someone experiences success with a random event, they will have a better chance of further success in subsequent attempts at the same activity.
In the Rochester study the monkeys showed the hot-handed bias consistently in the course of 1,200 trials that took place over several weeks. Blanchard noted that the monkeys “had lots and lots of opportunities to get over this bias, to learn and change, and yet they continued to show the same tendency.”
Serotonin and Dopamine
An alternative scenario has been suggested in a recent study undertaken by the United States National Institute of Health. In their look at gambling behavior, entitled, Serotonin and Dopamine Play Complementary Roles in Gambling to Recover Losses (see footnote 3) researchers examined the role that neurochemicals play in brain activity during gaming events.
The study was undertaken by a representative of the University of Aarhus in Denmark along with a group of UK researchers from several British universities. The study examined “loss-chasing” — continued gambling to recover losses – which plays a part in obsessive gambling patterns. The scientists set out to investigate the role that neuromodulators play in influencing loss-chasing and discovered that the serotonin activity in the brain plays a large part in this behavior.
In the first experiment, subjects consumed amino-acid drinks that either had or did not have the serotonin precursor tryptophan. In the second experiment, participants received pramipexole, agonist or a placebo drink. In the third experiment participants drank a drink that included the beta-adrenoceptor blocker propranolol, or a placebo.
After their drinks the participants were invited to compete at a computerized loss-chasing game. The researchers measured the participants’ moods and heart rates. The participants’ decisions to make or chase their game loses were correlated to the amino-acid drinks that they had consumed before they started playing. Some supplements caused the players to diminish the value of the losses which they surrendered and increase the value of the losses that they chased. Others produced no significant changes in loss-chasing behavior.
The researchers concluded that loss chasing can become an aversively motivated escape behavior which is controlled, in part, by the marginal value of accumulated losses relative to the value of continued gambling.
Based on this research, the authors of the study suggest that neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine play significant roles in the propensity of individuals to gamble. Serotonin and dopamine seem to be released into the synapse of the brain during gambling activities which heightens pleasure and provides an enhanced live casino or online casino experience. This is true regardless of whether the individual is playing table games, card games, lotteries or online pokies.
As a gamer plays he seems to be identifying patterns, whether real or imagined, that provide him with a rush of serotonin and dopamine for a heightened gambling experience, resulting in his interest in continuing to play based on his perceived luck.
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The findings of the Rochester study create a more intriguing question. Why do both monkeys and humans believe that they should count on a run of luck, even when they’re faced with overwhelming evidence that the results are, in fact, random? The authors of the study speculate that it may be because of primates’ inborn need to ensure a food supply. The distribution of food in the wild isn’t random so primates may be hard-wired to proceed according to the chances for obtaining the most satisfying food supply. Hayden expands on this theory: “If you find a nice juicy beetle on the underside of a log, this is pretty good evidence that there might be a beetle in a similar location nearby, because beetles, like most food sources, tend to live near each other.”
Hayden further elaborated on humans’ search for patterns, based on evolution. “We have this incredible drive to see patterns in the world, and we also have this incredible drive to learn. I think it’s very related to why we like music, and why we like to do crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and things like that. If there’s a pattern there, we’re on top of it. And if there may or may not be a pattern there, that’s even more interesting.”
University of Rochester News Center: Monkeys Also Believe in Winning Streaks, Study Shows http://www.rochester.edu/newscenter/monkeys-also-believe-in-winning-streaks-study-shows/
Live Science: Gambling Monkeys: Compelled by Winners High http://www.livescience.com/398-gambling-monkeys-compelled-winner-high.html
Footnote 1: Game Theory in the Talmud, York University, Department of Economics http://dept.econ.yorku.ca/~jros/docs/AumannGame.pdf
Footnote 2 Risky Monkey Business Could Help Humans Duke Magazine http://dukemagazine.duke.edu/article/risky-monkey-business-could-help-humans
Footnote 3:Serotonin and Dopamine Play Complementary Roles in Gambling to Recover Losses Neruopsychopharmocology Reviews http://www.nature.com/npp/journal/v36/n2/full/npp2010170a.html