By Lindsay Zelson
Imagine that you are on vacation, and you go to a casino. Walking in, you notice a few people sitting behind a table with a large poster taped to the front: “SEE XXX PICS OR MAYBE WIN $$$. IT’S FOR SCIENCE.” Intrigued, you stroll over. A seated researcher asks if you want to participate in an experiment and describes the process. First, you would be shown a signal to anticipate one of two rewards: a picture of a naked woman, or a picture of how much money you could win. Next, you were to quickly press a button indicating the signaled reward. If you pressed correctly, you had a chance of being shown the picture or given the money. You participated and found the task simple. The woman was attractive, and it was nice to win money, so you responded equally quickly to both of the signals.
However, pathological gamblers respond differently to this task. In a real study by Guillaume Sescousse and colleagues, the researchers examined how pathological gamblers’ brains anticipated and responded to a reward of money versus a reward that was a picture of a naked woman. These researchers found that pathological gamblers responded faster and were more motivated by the possibility of receiving money than the possibility of seeing the photo. The researchers proposed that this behavior is due to a “motivational hierarchy” in which pathological gamblers want money over other kinds of rewards. This “motivational hierarchy” played an important role when the gamblers anticipated a reward, and the researchers suggest that it could promote gambling addiction. Furthermore, the severity of a gambler’s symptoms can predict how much they prefer money over sex.
The researchers indicated that this hierarchy is both due to pathological gamblers’ becoming more sensitive to anticipating money and less sensitive to anticipating other rewards. Additionally, this finding helps explain prior research showing that pathological gamblers sometimes are not aware of whether they are winning or losing while playing (Nower and Blaszczynski, 2010).
The researchers also found that pathological gamblers responded differently than non-pathological gamblers even after they received a reward. Sescousse and colleagues performed brain scans on their participants after they received the rewards, and the scans of the pathological gamblers indicated that they did not interpret the naked photo “reward” as rewarding. The researchers propose that the definition of a “reward” becomes skewed for pathological gamblers who are highly eager for money and less so for other rewards.
Thus, this research suggests that pathological gamblers pursue money over other kinds of rewards because they find it more intrinsically motivating, and even when they get other kinds of rewards, gamblers do not find them as exciting as money. Unfortunately, these two elements can work together to encourage a gambling addiction.
Eventually, you won money, just like all the real participants did, regardless of performance. Maybe you’ll donate your winnings to future research to seek ways of treating pathological gambling by “resetting” money’s motivational properties. Until then, have fun, and be careful.
Articles: Nower L, Blaszczynski A. Gambling motivations, money-limiting strategies, and precommitment preferences of problem versus non-problem gamblers. J Gambl Stud 2010; 26: 361–72.
Sescousse, G., Barbalat, G., Domenech, P., & Dreher, J.-C. (2013). Imbalance in the sensitivity to different types of rewards in pathological gambling. Brain : a Journal of Neurology, 136(Pt 8), 2527–2538.
Images: [gambling_luck.jpg]. (2014, July). Retrieved from http://www.gamblingaffiliateplace.com/tag/gambling-affiliate-place/
Kathy. (2008, September 8). Reno [Photograph]. Retrieved from https://flic.kr/p/5pD4Aw