Why do people bet? What drives us to risk our money in hope for a win? In this article we will try to understand why people wager and how they behave while doing it.
Betting behavior has been the subject of numerous studies over the years. These analyses have come to varying conclusions, and several theories still abound — far too many to comprehensively discuss here. As such, this discussion will review four of the most commonly-held explanations for differing betting habits.
Bet to win
The most traditional and most intuitive theory says that betting can be explained by the desire to win money. Except for games that require greater degrees of skill (such as poker), it’s common knowledge that the odds of winning are generally tipped against the player. Yet, despite this widespread understanding, the total randomness of most games (which could reward a fortunate player on any given day), combined with the disproportionate publicizing of big wins and massive payouts, entices players with the possibility — however remote — of winning some cash. The traditional “money-based” theory would also explain why one’s betting behavior could also be influenced by witnessing other people’s winnings. For example, the success of poker player stars, like Daniel Negreanu, could inspire poker enthusiasts to try to become poker pros just like him.
Optimistic gamers who focus exclusively on the pure arbitrariness of the roulette wheel, the dice or the slot machine might conclude that all they need is for the universe to deliver them an average of more wins than losses. More simply, these kinds of players could simply see the opportunity of winning money as a series of coin tosses, and that’s a chance that they’re willing to take. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why gaming is so attractive to young adults who generally make less income than their more senior counterparts and are thus more willing to embrace betting as a potential money-making (ad)venture.
The traditional view seems supported by multiple studies showing that, during gaming activity, the brain releases higher levels of mesolimbic dopamine (MLD), which is the chief neurotransmitter of incentive motivation. The brain releases MLD in response to “conditioned cues” that are predictors of an impending reward. Because money has been a symbol of wealth and power throughout human history, it stands to reason that the anticipation of winning money during a gaming session is a conditioned cue that triggers this mesolimbic dopamine response in the brain (mesolimbic dopamine release is linked to symptom severity in gaming addiction).
Bet to lose
A second theory posits that betting behavior can also be driven by monetary losses rather than wins – yes it is counter-intuitive. Although the traditional theory above is consistent with neurological studies, those findings still fail to explain why people often describe gaming as a pleasurable activity, even when monetary gain isn’t their primary motivation. Multiple studies have shown that gaming enthusiasts often describe betting itself (whether they win or lose) with the same euphoria as other pleasurable, habit-forming activities. These studies also describe a phenomenon known as “loss-chasing”, whereby the gamer persists in prolonging their gaming session and increasing their bets, in response to prior losses rather than wins.
Furthermore, studies have found that dopamine levels were the same for regular players players as for control groups when both groups won money; however, when both groups experienced losses, players released more dopamine than the control subjects. These experiments support the theory that “near misses” can create even greater motivation to continue wagering than a “big win” because they encourage the brain to problem solve in an effort to (hopefully) ameliorate the player’s results in the next round. Adding another facet to the “loss-based” theory, other studies have concluded that when we bet we are more prone to seeing illusory “patterns” in the games we play when, in fact, there are none. This is actually a well known phenomenon of cognitive bias called apophenia. This attitude would ultimately enhance their willingness to take on additional risks in the face of recent losses.
Bet for the anticipation
A third theory is that wagering behavior is motivated by reward uncertainty, which some analysts have described as a variant of loss-chasing. Studies using both human subjects and monkeys have demonstrated that reward uncertainty is a greater factor in increasing mesolimbic dopamine levels than the possibility of a reward on its own. Furthermore, additional research has shown that players release maximum levels of dopamine during betting activities that have identical probabilities of winning and losing money. For example, a 50-50 likelihood of winning in a two-outcome activity, like Red and Black or High vs Low, what we call in roulette Even Chances. Note that this theory of reward uncertainty would predict that games like the slots and the roulette wheel, which have outcomes more closely resembling 50%, would be expected to generate maximum amounts of mesolimbic dopamine, which would, in turn, be more apt to stimulate additional betting activity.
When commenting on this phenomenon, award-winning game designer Greg Costikyan drew the analogy that people can’t remain interested in games without some level of uncertainty. This uncertainty can take many forms, including variations in the game’s path, outcomes, user perceptions, analytical complexity, etc. Costikyan similarly noted that people lose interest in the game of Tic-Tac-Toe once they’re mature enough to realize that the solution is inconsequential. The reason that Tic-Tac-Toe is so much more enthralling during our earlier years is because we don’t yet realize that the game has an optimal strategy — thus, the outcome is uncertain. Similarly, because predictability is boring, you’re much less likely to read a murder, mystery novel or watch a movie thriller if the killer is known in advance.
Betting for fun
A fourth hypothesis is that betting behavior is driven primarily by its entertainment value. Whether it’s hitting the casino, attending a neighbor’s poker night or playing fantasy football, some people engage in betting activities solely for the fun of it. When players view gaming purely as a form of amusement, particularly when they have no expectations of actually winning, then they can regard their wager as analogous to the price of a ticket to see a Broadway show or a good movie. Furthermore, the excitement of their experience is heightened by the slim chance that they could actually win some cash in the process. In short, being both psychologically and emotionally indifferent towards losing money from the outset can produce a truly enjoyable betting experience.
This is why casinos are constantly trying to make their games more fun and engaging. You can observe this race for even more entertaining games, mainly in slots, but lately even classic games like roulette or poker have been the subject of such efforts. (Book of) Ra Roulette by Extreme Live Gaming and Power Up Poker by Pokerstars are two such examples.
The entertainment theory is supported by the statistics. While 80% of Americans participate in some form of betting activity at some point during their lifetime, only approximately 0.2% – 5% develop problematic habits. This just goes to show most people can have a healthy relationship with gaming and control their impulses. Furthermore, studies have (predictably) revealed that if your friends or loved ones participate in betting activities, then you’re also more likely to do so.
Escapism, social interaction, intellectual challenge or just plain feeling lucky are possible motivations for playing too. People who are workaholics, impulsive, easily bored, restless or generally more highly-competitive tend to engage in betting activities more often than others, which suggests that gaming might simply be a way for them to either relax or find some sort of challenge or exhilaration that has very little to do with monetary incentives.
Psychiatry and psychology have an incomplete understanding of the gaming phenomenon. Scientific studies, can identify relations between wagering and the human brain, but they cannot provide us with definitive answers regarding something as complex as human betting behavior. However, a few things have become very clear. First, betting behavior varies widely among individuals, and it cannot be predicted by or attributed to one causal stimulus. Second, betting behavior is affected by different incentives, which are largely based on personality differences. We also know that our station in life, our work environment, the people around us and other societal factors can adjust our inherent propensities to participate in betting activities. And betting incentives can range from wanting to have a fun night at the casino to being short on your rent. But the consensus is that, regardless of their motivations, most people enjoy the thrills of gaming in healthy moderation.