Screaming in the last 10 seconds of a football game, the score is neck and neck, and your team has the ball on the 20 yard line. Needless to say your heart is beating like crazy in anticipation to see the outcome. Would it be beating any harder if you had money riding on the outcome? A recent study has shown that when it comes to gambling, the excitatory aspects are heightened when there is something to be won, no matter what game you’re playing, or the outcome (1).
Gambling’s more exciting when there’s money on the line
Recent work by researchers at SUNY Albany, discovered that in the last 30 seconds of a horse race and the following 30 seconds after the completion of a race, heart rate (HR) rises significantly more in individuals who think they will personally benefit from the race. The HR of those who lost money still rises after learning the outcome of the race—surprisingly just as much as those who won money. So whether you win or lose money in the race, your heart rate still goes up, which may provide a signal from the body that drives the continuation of gambling behavior.
Seems strange right? Win or lose, as long as you bet money on the game your body is going to become more excited about it. Still, when questioned afterwards, individual’s rated their experience as more exciting only if they won money. That, in fact, was the only difference between the men and women in the study. Women rated their subjective excitement higher even for lower winning rates (in this study $2, and $7), whereas men only said they were excited for the highest amount ($15).
How does gambling become addictive?
You become addicted to drugs because of chemicals that change your body and brain in specific ways that make you want more (see a past post here). Gambling doesn’t involve putting chemicals in your body, so how can you become addicted to it?
When you gamble, actual changes occur in your brain, just as they occur with drugs. Though gambling may not put chemicals in your body directly, it does affect the same class of chemicals that become altered by the intake of drugs. It all goes back to the reward pathway in the brain and neurotransmitters like dopamine, adrenaline, and noradrenaline. Whether a good experience or a bad one, the effect on the brain can apparently get some people to the point where they lose control over their betting, win or lose.
The question is: Why can’t you just play the same games without getting in debt?
Betting money creates a heightened excitement by the release of the reward-related neurotransmitters. That feeling of reward becomes associated with all the other surrounding stimuli (i.e. bright lights and sounds of casinos or screaming fans) and Bam! Here comes trouble (see my post about cravings here). As long as the gambling is sometimes paired with an actual win, the arousal from the situation as a whole (even while losing) will continue to create the desired effect. In fact, inconsistent rewarding, and especially the kind that can’t be predicted, produces the strongest, hardest to shake kind of learning. This is why casinos program slot machines (their biggest gambling money maker) to win one out of every five draws o average – it keeps people coming back for more. Every one of those unexpected wins pushes up dopamine levels in the brain making it more likely that you’ll go back for more…
Wulfert, Franco, Williams, Roland, and Hatley Maxson (2008). The Role of Money in the Excitement of Gambling. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 22, 380-390.