What Can Monkeys Teach Us About Gambling?

‎‎‎‎‎‏‏‏‏‏‏‏‎‎‏‎GamblersBet Blog Gambling Monkeys Science
by Zoe Harper
Monkeys help us understand gaming behaviour

By teaching monkeys to gamble professors at Johns Hopkins University were able to study brain activity during gaming, especially which part of the brain is involved during the risk evaluation of a gaming session.

This research gives yet another insight into what actually happens with our brain when we gamble and how some people seem to take risks more willingly, while others prefer to play it safe.

During 2019 it became evident that gambling is a growing social phenomenon and we're even talking about a "generation of gamers". To be a "gamer" today comes with status and it doesn't really matter if you gamble Fortnite, online slots or a combination of both. The number of young millionaires who made their fortune on gambling is just growing but it's not only the actual gamers that have climbed the status ladder. The same applies to those developing the games. Good developers are headhunted across the globe.

But what about the brain behind it all?

This takes us back to our monkeys. The study at Johns Hopkins was conducted based on the assumption that risk willingness (especially during gambling) is based on the personality of the individual. Basically, that one is born with or without, a high-risk willingness. Basically, you can't help it if you are a risk-taker and you have your self to blame for any of the consequences that may follow. 

Gambling by definition involves constant risk decision making. That's why we gamble right? If each game would be exactly the same as the previous or if you would win every time, you would soon get bored. Every time you spin the wheel on a slot machine you make a decision to continue or not. Many of the modern slot games today you even find a multiplier option, that gives the player a chance to take a risk to double his potential winnings or to play it safe and keep what he already won. Professional poker players are known for their skills to keep the nerves calm and make sharp decisions based on an assessment of the risks involved with each hand and bet. Blackjack is another example and the high-risk player at the roulette table, betting it all on 0 is well known.  

So Who Is Willing To Risk It All?

Is it a simple matter of personality or is it brain activity? 

The two monkeys who participated in this study did not gamble to win money, but drinks of water. Playing against a computer they were faced with high and low odds to choose from. By choosing an option with 20% odds of winning they would get 10 millimeters of water but with the 80% odds option they would win only 3 millimeters. So what did they choose? Well, it turns out that monkeys want water like humans want money. The monkeys went for the higher risk, to get an extra 7 m.m of water - or be without if they were to lose.

"The monkeys should rationally choose the 3 milliliters, but they always went with the riskier option," said Chen, a former Johns Hopkins graduate student who is now at Stanford University.

"They're like people who like to go to Las Vegas to play the slots, where there's a very high reward but a very low chance of winning it." (source)

Well, this is true for slots in Vegas where you really don't have a great chance of beating the house, but monkeys are smart. They probably know that the payouts when playing slots online are a lot higher than on the games Chen refers to so they may have taken this into consideration. As they were actually playing computer games and not traditional card games they may have reasoned like most humans, it's worth it to take a higher risk when playing online as the RTP (return to player) is higher on these games. This doesn't seem to have been a factor the research team considered but the study did not end here.

Faced with the surprising results that the monkeys seem to like the thrill of high-risk gaming, the research team now suppressed the area of the brain known to be involved in risk assessment, and this is the part that may surprise you even more, or not. The monkey gamers suddenly changed their gaming behavior and became less willing to take risks. To a point where they lost their joy for gaming. They got bored. 

One can ask if they perhaps had enough water already and simply didn't care anymore, but we trust this factor was ruled out. So what happened to our Monkeys? 

Monkey See - Monkey Do

Well, it's not just a wanton turn of phrase for us. Compulsive gambling behavior may very well have to do with the area in the brain known as the supplementary eye field (SEF). Based on the study conducted by Johns Hopkins University, this part of the frontal cortex may very well be connected with risky behavior.

However, how could the scientists know if monkeys are in fact being led on by their SEF? That question pestered them for a while before it was decided that the SEF should be completely taken out of the equation.

But hold your gasps, nothing bad happened to the monkeys. The scientists involved in the trial used tiny metal plates and positioned them directly over the region of the cortex that was supposedly triggering the compulsive behavior.

Well, the monkeys couldn't see any longer – not with their supplementary eye field in any event. Aragorn and Isildur – humorously named after Lord of the Rings Characters – almost lost their satisfaction with gambling once their SEF deactivated. Wow!

What this proves is – well, that more studies are needed.

There are some great findings nevertheless, though. For example, Florida Institute of Technology comparative psychologist Darby Proctor said that the fact that the frontal cortex was involved in addiction was fascinating. Yet, Proctor didn't entirely think that the findings were justified, as casinos relied on the motor function to get you involved.

Yet, the authors of the study argued that areas responsible for limb function were near the SEF, and hey – you can always argue that the square footage in the skull isn't exactly impressive, but it all seems to be linked together.

No Monkey Business To Get You Gamble More

The question that comes to mind next is whether casinos are aware of this link between perceiving and desire? It makes perfect sense when you think about it. Many great journals out there have fired potshots at casinos. Some called them "designed to deceive" while others have boldly stated that casinos are enablers.

Whatever the truth is, science is not quite ready to make a big dramatic entry and forever help us understand how we get 'hooked'. Of course, just like in the case with monkeys, people have their triggers when it comes to gambling.

The general argument is that the lights create an immersive environment that sucks in the user.

It's at this point that one can't help but wonder what would happen if two delicate metal plates were placed right above a gambling addicts' SEF,  would this simple thing make them gamble less. Is this actually the solution to compulsive gambling? 

What About My Own "Monkey" Brain?

Well, to start with, the human brain structure is very similar to the brain of monkeys so the study is highly relevant. You included. 

However, this study is only one small piece of the puzzle to understand the relationship between the human brain and gaming. This study shows the importance of further research on the ability to manipulate brain response to gambling situations. Another important area is to understand how our brain reacts to adrenaline. Especially adrenaline rushes triggered by gaming.

In general, we can agree that most people wouldn't be doing things like bungee jumping and skydiving if it hadn't been for the thrill these high adrenaline-rush activities give us. Some people live for this thrill and are constantly looking for new extreme activities. Some, we would argue every gamer, have found this thrill in playing games. The gamer or gambler, experience an adrenaline-rush by winning/having a chance to win. By doing an activity where they are constantly faced with unpredictable situations that potentially could trigger an adrenaline-rush thrill they find it difficult to leave the game. Or to come back for more even after a big loss.

This brings us to the developers of those games. Of course, they try to create games that enhance the gaming experience and the thrill is a big part of it. The challenge for game developers is therefore to develop games that manipulate the brain to release adrenaline, to give the gamer frequent adrenaline-rushes. This makes him stay longer in the game, and to come back for more.

The importance of adrenaline has been discussed in several studies but again, with the assumption that someone who is born a risk-taker, will use the adrenaline rush as a push, but if you don't have this trait, an increase of adrenaline will still not be enough to turn a safe person into a risky one.

As modern games become more advanced we also need to keep up the research on how these modern developments impact our brain. Yes, science rock. 

Game developers use the knowledge from brain science to create games that give us the highest possible entertainment, including our willingness to take risks. 

This is a good thing for gamblers in general as we do get more interactive and more exciting games, but in order to understand why some people become addicted to gambling, this monkey-study is important. It brings back the focus to brain activity and removes the blame and shame, of the individual.

Let's face it, gaming and gambling is a lot of FUN! But for some, the fun gets out of control. If we truly want to help people with gambling problems, Aragorn and Isildur, have helped us understand why we must look at the problem of compulsive gambling from a brain perspective and not regard it as a weakness of the individual!  

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