The psychology of gambling – what it is that makes it so appealing – is a little understood phenomenon. Some things, of course are self-evident: we all like easy money; we all enjoy the sensation of winning, and we all enjoy a sense of playful recreation. These simple explanations hold good for just about every human society that we have any knowledge of. People like gambling – but that doesn’t explain why we seem to like it so much.
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Increasingly, research into what it is that people find so attractive is adding to our understanding of this seemingly universal human impulse. In the process, we are learning more and more about the fundamental drivers of our more general behaviour. In this sense, studying gambling offers a window into the psychology of market behaviours and other mass phenomena.
For example, a study published in the journal Psychopathology, by Professor Pinhas Dannon and Doctor Ronen Huberfeld of the Beer Yaakov Mental Health Centre in Tel Aviv showed that when it comes to betting on sports there is little or no advantage to be gained from ‘expert’ knowledge of the sport itself. This is obviously a finding that will have sports fans scratching their heads. How can this be?
The researchers had three groups of subjects place bets to predict the outcome of 16 second round Champions League soccer games. One group comprised professional sports gamblers, the second comprised knowledgeable soccer fans who did not ordinarily bet and the third was made up of people with no prior interest in either betting or soccer.
The results were surprisingly even. When it came to the crunch all three groups were comparable in their success rates. In fact, the two highest performing subjects came from the third – ‘ignorant’ – group. The researchers concluded that there is a mythical quality to ‘expert knowledge’ which aficionados get a kick out of.
What that means in practical terms is that if you are tempted to back a horse on the basis of its name – if you are attracted to Irish Saint at the forthcoming Cheltenham Festival for example – then you can put your money down safe in the knowledge that in reality you know every bit as much as the next man or woman. And much as they will be getting a kick out of thinking that they know something the rest of the world has missed – and we all know that feeling – you will be enjoying a taste of schadenfreude on a grand scale.
Research elsewhere however has shown that there is a peculiarly shared, social aspect to gambling that was previously unrecognised. Professor Josep Marco-Pallarés, a psychologist at the University of Barcelona, writing in BMC Neuroscience, suggests that when we watch others gamble, our brains respond as though we are gambling, too. His research used EEG brain wave technology to measure respondent’s neural reactions to other people’s gambling. He found that even if a subject was not betting themselves, they experienced the same mental response as gamblers they were watching closely.
So much for the schadenfreude!
What this points to an innate herd instinct to share in the emotional reactions of others. And this, perhaps takes us back to where we started. Gambling, like sport, is a fundamentally social activity. It’s appeal lies in the ability to generate that deep social connection between people. It may pit them into adversarial but, like boxers who embrace at the end of a gruelling bout, they will fundamentally recognise the profound value they see in coming together in the first place – however confrontational that might appear at first glance.
As numerous sages down the years have noted, the business of gambling and the gamble that is business are much the same thing. Difficult as it may be to swallow, the research into gambling poses some searching questions for anyone who takes their professional expertise too seriously.
Professor Pinhas Dannon’s and Doctor Ronen Huberfeld’s findings concerning the ‘mythical quality’ of expert knowledge are summarised here.