Casinos, gamers and researchers are reviewing recent studies which have identified gambling behaviors which show similarities among humans and other primates.
Monkeys and Humans
For many years, researchers have recognized that human behavior is similar to the behavior of non-human primates as they relate to characteristics and traits seen in the two species. Recent research seems to confirm that this is not limited to affective behavior. The research has demonstrated that behavior that has to do with day-to-day life, in addition to conduct that’s observed when engaging in special events and activities, is also similar.
Scientists want to determine two things:
- What similarities exist?
- What do those similarities tell us about different types of activities in which humans engage, both positive and negative, that we may have once assumed were random, but are really hard-wired into our genetic make-up?
To examine these questions, researchers have been examining gambling among humans by looking at humans’ evolutionary forbearers — primates.
Similarities between Monkey Gambling and Human Gambling
Anthropological and archaeological findings clearly demonstrate that, from pre-historic times, humans have always played games to win tangible rewards. Ancient texts, drawings and implements that have been discovered in expeditions throughout the world provide ample evidence that gambling has been a feature of every culture in every era.
The Rochester researchers wanted to determine why this is so. Why are humans seemingly genetically drawn to play games of chance? Why do intelligent, well-educated people enjoy activities that are based on random events – and often convince themselves that, by following a pattern that really doesn’t exist, they can reap rewards?
Over the years there have been several studies which have demonstrated similarities in human and monkey behavior. Some of these studies, which relate to gambling, involve examinations of behaviors such as the inclination among monkeys for fairness and caring.
Monkeys Look for Fairness
The Journal for Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study in 2007 (citation 1) which looked at the tendency of monkeys to favor fair play. Researchers created a game in which tufted capuchin monkeys would hand a small granite rock to a human in exchange for a reward — a cucumber slice or the more preferable grape. When one monkey received a grape for his granite stone while the second monkey received a cucumber, the monkeys became enraged. The researchers concluded that monkeys definitely understand and prefer fairness.
Monkeys Caring Behavior
Anecdotal behavior of primate caring behavior has been observed by watching Koko, the famous gorilla who learned American Sign Language, enabling her to communicate her feelings. As a youngster Koko was given a kitten to care for. Koko proceeded to nurture the young cat for many months, until the kitten escaped and was run over by a car. Subsequently, two more cats were introduced into Koko’s quarters. Koko continued to take care of the felines – feeding, grooming and even trying to nurse them. Koko, and other animals which have been observed caring for young which aren’t their biological offspring, have demonstrated that nurturing behavior goes beyond an animal’s inbred responsibility to care for its own young.
Gambling and Humans
These and other studies have furthered our understanding of how monkey behavior compares to human behavior. Over the past decade, several studies have taken these similarities into the realm of gambling. Researchers believe that, by understanding more about the psycho-biological proclivity of primates to gamble, we will be able to better understand our own evolutionary make-up as well as, perhaps, how to use this knowledge to treat excessive gambling behavior in humans.
One of the first studies done on monkey gambling took place in 2005 at Duke University. Dr. Michael Platt, a neurobiologist, was the first researcher to show definitely that monkeys have the same predisposition to gamble as humans. In his research, entitled ”Monkeys Pay Per View: Adaptive Valuation of Social Images by Rhesus Macaques” Platt demonstrated that when monkeys have a choice between taking a chance to receive a reward and receiving the reward steadily, they will consistently choose to take the risk.
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.
Platt varied the study to see whether the monkeys would make the same choice even when they understood that they could lose their reward by gambling it. The results validated the premise that monkeys prefer gambling – they continued to select the riskier option to “gamble” their prize.
Platt then changed the parameters of the study. At first, he reduced the payoff for gazing at the risky light, so that the monkeys received a smaller reward than they had previously received. He then changed the parameters again to observe the monkeys after they had suffered a series of losses. Regardless of the value of the reward, or of the previous losses, the monkeys demonstrated a clear preference to gamble for their rewards.
Next, the researchers wired electrodes into the monkeys’ brains. With this they were able to determine that neuron activity increased in the monkeys brains whenever the monkeys increased their risky behavior. Lead researcher Platt wrote that “the activity of these neurons paralleled the behavior of the monkeys. They looked like they were signaling, in fact, their subjective valuation of the target.”
In summary, Platt wrote “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.”
One of the biggest questions that the Duke study raised involved the question of why the monkeys behaved in this manner. Tommy Blanchard, a doctoral candidate in brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, believed that he had the answer, and to prove it, he designed a study that would examine decision-making in non-human primates in gaming situations.
Blanchard, together with his research team, Andreas Wilke, an assistant professor of psychology at Clarkson University and Benjamin Hayden, assistant professor brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester, wanted to explore their belief that primates’ cognitive make-up is responsible monkeys’ preference to gamble. They felt that research would show that there’s a tendency for primates to look for, and see, patterns that don’t actually exist. They further posited that such a tendency evolved through primates’ adaptation to their environment. The adaptation, they said, began in prehistoric times and continued to evolve as humans evolved.
The Rochester study (footnote 3) focused on situations of random chance which, they propose, may have been a survival technique for our predecessors to give them a selective advantage in foraging for food in the wild.
The researchers set out to determine if and how monkeys will act based on a belief in winning streaks when presented with the opportunity. They created three different types of play paradigms. In 2 of the types of play, the correct answer repeated over and over while in the third play type the play paradigm, the answer to the choice was random.
As the game progressed the monkeys were able to quickly guess how the correct answer to a dilemma would earn them a reward whenever a clear pattern could be discerned. However, in the random play paradigm, the monkeys continued to make their selections a way that suggested that they expected to experience a “lucky streak.” Even when their rewards became random, the monkeys continued to favor riskier behavior.
In gaming circles this is what is known as a “hot-hand bias.” Up until this point hot-hand biases, also known as hot-hand fallacies” or “hot hand phenomenon” had only been related to humans. The Rochester study showed that monkeys also demonstrate a belief that, when someone experiences success with a random event, further successes will occur in subsequent attempts at the same activity.
The monkeys exhibited the hot-handed bias consistently over the course of 1,200 trials which took place over several weeks. Blanchard wrote 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.”
Their results of Blanchard Wilke and Hayden’s work were published in the July 2014 issue of Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition. Their study goes 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.
Hard-Wired Cognitive Behavior
An alternative scenario is suggested by a US National Institute of Health study in which the researchers examined the roles that the neurochemicals serotonin and dopamine play in gambling behavior. (footnote 4). The study examined, specifically, how brain activity changes, chemically, when an individual is gambling.
The study was undertaken by researchers from the University of Aarhus in Denmark and UK researchers from several British universities. The researchers set out to examine “loss-chasing” – how continued gambling to recover losses plays a part in obsessive gambling patterns. The scientists were specifically looking at the role that neuromodulators play in influencing loss-chasing behavior.
In their first experiment, subjects were asked to drink substances containing amino-acid which either had or did not have the serotonin precursor tryptophan. In the second experiment, participants were given pramipexole, agonist or a placebo drink. In the third experiment participants were given drinks that included the beta-adrenoceptor blocker propranolol, or a placebo.
After consuming their drinks the participants competed at computerized loss-chasing games while the researchers measured the participants’ moods and heart rates. Participant decisions to make or chase game loses were correlated to the amino-acid drink that each subject had consumed before playing. Some supplements caused the players to diminish the value of the losses which they surrendered while increasing the value of the losses that they chased. Other supplements produced no significant changes in loss-chasing behavior.
The researchers observed that, as participants played, they seemed to be identifying patterns, whether real or imagined, that provided them with a rush of serotonin and dopamine. This “rush” created a heightened and more pleasurable gambling experience and resulted in the individuals’ continued interest in playing, based on their perceived luck.
The researchers concluded that loss chasing is controlled, in part, by the marginal value of accumulated losses relative to the value of continued gambling. They suggest that neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine play a significant role in individuals’ predisposition to gamble. Serotonin and dopamine, they believe, is released into the synapse of a person’s brain when he gambles. It heightens his pleasure and provides an enhanced gambling experience. This is true regardless of whether the individual is playing card games, table games, lotteries or online pokies or whether he’s playing at a live casino or at an online casino [example].
Gambling has been a favoured activity in every society for tens, even hundreds of thousands of years. Religious and governmental warnings – even punishments – have never done anything to reduce the desire of people to play games for the chance to receive rewards, even when the chances were low.
Today researchers have many different tools and strategies at their disposal which allow them to provide more information about how our genetic and cognitive make-up may predispose us to engage in this type of activity.
In the future, new research may take us further so that we can better help people who become addicted to gambling.
- Journal for Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: Chimpanzees Play the Ultimate Game http://www.pnas.org/content/110/6/2070.abstract
- Duke Neurobiology Monkeys Pay Per View: Adaptive Valuation of Social Images by Rhesus Macaques http://www.neuro.duke.edu/files/documents/9_Deaner_Khera_Platt_2005.pdf
- Rochester Newscenter Monkeys Also Believe in Winning Streaks, Study Shows http://www.rochester.edu/newscenter/monkeys-also-believe-in-winning-streaks-study-shows/
4.Neuropsychopharmocology Reviews Serotonin and Dopamine Play Complementary Roles in Gambling to Recover Losses http://www.nature.com/npp/journal/v36/n2/full/npp2010170a.html
Further Reading and Resources
- Koko http://www.koko.org
- You Tube: Miss Kitty https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45X7OZKOxMU/
- Nature Spontaneous synchronization of arm motion between Japanese macaques http://www.nature.com/srep/2013/130128/srep01151/full/srep01151.html
- National Institute of Health Serotonin and Dopamine Play Complementary Roles in Gambling to Recover Losses http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3055672/