The Mind Field :The Gambling Instinct

Is the propensity to gamble influenced by misunderstanding risk and chance?

Dr Kwame McKenzie

Man : I'm not a gambler,I just have a flutter,you know.

Man : Well,I've just come in to put the bets on for the wife.She has a play spot every day so,I just come in and do it.I don't bet myself,only on the big races.

1st Man : I mean well in as such,but I mean we only just came in to look around.I mean I've stopped but I still like to keep,I mean you know come in here just to check,just to have a look round,just out of interest really,isn't it?

2nd Man : Oh yeah,I'm nothing like him,no,no,I don't know no big gamblers,'cept for him! (laughs)

Dr Kwame McKenzie (Institute of Psychiatry): We're all gamblers one way or another,no matter what we claim.Personally I've never won anything,though I do have an uncle who once won £70,000,but I'm not lucky like that.So generally I don't bother.Yet,like most non-gamblers, I sometimes do the lottery,or buy a ticket in the office raffle.Non-gamblers like me spend billions of pounds a year gambling,why?

1st Woman : I come to bingo about three days a week,and I just come for the company and the excitement of shouting and that,you know.

2nd Woman : I'm here every day,rain,snow,blowing a gale.I'm never in,but I don't go out at night time for I'm frightened I'll get a man,right! (laughs)

Dr Emanuel Moran (National Council on Gambling) : The history of gambling is the history of mankind.In ancient history there's evidence of gambling having taken place,and it's always been very popular.

"7 on it's own,number 7,4 and 6,46"

Gambling is a form of entertainment,in which you pay for the entertainment in terms of the stake you place.If you win some money,at the end of it,oh that's a bonus,and if you're wise, you put that in your pocket and you walk away quids in.

"3 and 6,36.On 36 thank you"

Woman : Very exciting and very upsetting if you're number doesn't come out and you're waiting for one,and he calls our one above or one below.It's terrible.

(Roulette wheel spins)

Mike : I think that gambling is better than sex,because you can fall in love with the roulette wheel a little ball,and you get just as much excitement as you do making love.

Iain Brown (University of Glasgow) : Arousal and physiological arousal is very important.

"Thank you no more bets"

And because that's how they manage to achieve escape.When people are in the midst of a gambling episode,then one division of their autonomic nervous system is very indeed,and that tends to increase their heart rate,raise their blood pressure a bit,slow down the digestive processes,and so on.

Dr Kwame McKenzie : Gamblers aren't all the same.Some do it for the money,but many casino gamblers do it for the thrill.Research shows that those who do it for the thrill,are physiologically different from the rest of us,they get more of a buzz.The average resting heart beats 72 times a minute.Look what happens to Mike's heart as he waits to see if he's won.

As the excitement increases,his heartbeat goes extremely high,way above what might happen to a non-gambler.

1st Woman : It's hard to explain to anybody what it's like,especially if you've got,even if it's just two chips on and somebody else has got ten on,you're more excited for them because they've got these ten chips on.....

2nd Woman : That's right yeah.

1st Woman : ...wishing you could have the same like you know,but you don't! (laughs)

Woman : You kid yourself you're somebody else for the night and it's just the thrill of putting your money on.If you lose,you come put and you don't worry about it,and you come back again for more. [Like a lamb to the slaughter -LB]

Dr Kwame McKenzie : I'm not a gambler,but every time I play a one-armed bandit,I believe I'm going to win the jackpot,particularly if I get a win early,even if it's only 20p.Now there's a whole industry out there that's trying to seduce us into gambling,and they know exactly what makes us tick.

Woman : I didn't used to gamble at first,I just used to sit up at the bar having a drink,and then I came down and I just won from there,and I've been hooked ever since. [The same term that is used for a drug -LB] I just love the thrill of the game,you know,thinking you can walk out with thousands.

Iain Brown : The gaming industry is well aware that it will extract the most money from the people who have been encouraged or if you like,seduced into this unreal world,where the money that they're laying on their bets,is something unreal and remote.It's not actually hundred pound notes,it's purple chips,where time stands still,there are no clocks in casinos. Where it's a wonderful world where you actually might win enough money to buy a whole island in the Bahamas,never mind a holiday there.
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"Thank you no more bets."

"29 get in.......Oooooooohhh,on no!"

"What a wipe out that was."

"Not again,aaahhh it's a killer."

Man : On a good week I can make £50-60 or I could lose it and put in £100 pounds.So you have to weigh the pros and cons,but there's mostly cons when you play these kind of games.

[That's exactly why it's a waste of money,on average more goes in than comes out.Con is precisely the right word -LB]

Man : Sometimes you might just find the machine in the right moment.It'll just pay out a lot in just one hit.

Man : They're all sequenced,the machines,so you're trying to get that sequence,erm pretty good when you win,pretty bad when you lose.

Dr Emanuel Moran : Fruit machines in many ways indicate to a maximum degree all the pitfalls that characterise gambling.they have in-built in them,the whole business of operant conditioning,in which,as a result of an award,which is presented intermittently,one is encouraged to go on [See Protext Files] and this then builds the habit.[Effectively taking the choice away from the player -LB]

But in addition,there are all sorts of devices incorporated in the modern fruit machine.For instance there's the whole business of "nudge" and "hold",which encourages the person that they can control the uncertain event.

[The idea being to give the player a false indication that they have some control over something which they have no control over,which is a con -LB]

The fruit machine is very carefully built.The first wheel that stops has a high incidence of winning symbols,and the number of winning symbols diminishes up to the last wheel,and so you seem to get a "near miss",and this encourages you to go on.

[It facilitates a false expectation of the likelihood of a win -LB]

And then there's the noisy sound effects,the flashing lights,encouraging you to think that this is a money machine.All this encourages further play,and that's one of the reasons why fruit machines used to be known,and still should be called "one-armed bandits".

Girl : I like winning the money,I don't know,it's good innit? It's exciting,it's addictive isn't it? (laughs) [Addictive is another word applied to drugs -LB]

Dr Kwame McKenzie : Now putting money on the economic future is how the city of London makes it's living.Brokers gamble with our money and the city's own specialist bookmakers say they also gamble with their own.

Jonathan Sparke (City Index Ltd): You have in the city your doers and shakers who make the money,who trade the commodity markets,the futures markets,dealing in currency, stockbrokers,and then you have the advisors,and these are the people who try to get professional fees off the people who make the money.So your accountants and your lawyers are not gamblers,but are professional people,almost parasites if I dare say it,taking the money off the gamblers,advising them how they can best save tax or do a jolly good commercial deal.The people who are making the decisions,every decision they make is a gamble,whether they like it or not.

"And Swiss Francs against the Dollar,were currently 80,72-87"

We are bookmakers in the city,and we bet with the pin-striped brigade in principle,whether it be serious,whether the FTSE will go up or down in the day,whether it be political,how many seats will the conservative party win at the next general election,whatever it is,we like to participate in it.If there's a market,we'll make it.

Gambling is in people's blood,so it's second nature to them.Come 12 o'clock,markets often go quiet, so what do these boys do,they look at what's going to happen in the evening and think "Ho ho,Arsenal are playing (indistinct) at football,let's have a little punt on how many goals will be scored,what the shirt numbers will be,because Arsenal's got a small pitch,maybe they'll be lots of corners,and they can get all sorts of excitement organised at lunch,that if their wife or girlfriend isn't in sparkling form in the evening,they can have an alternative source of enjoyment.

"Shirt numbers are 31,33.One hundred you buy at 33"

A good gambler is someone who works out the odds,takes an intelligent risk,takes his profit and then waits for the next opportunity.Someone who's mathematical,who's cold,and who can be completely dispassionate,in his evaluation.Luckily not too many of these people exist,or I wouldn't have a business!

Dr Kwame McKenzie : He's right.We're people,we don't think in terms of cold mathematics, we make our judgements emotionally.I've got a lottery ticket here,with random numbers on it.Did you get a ticket this week,well chances are you'll have chosen numbers of special significance to you.Now I want to make you an offer,suppose I give you my ticket,and throw in the pound it cost,but you have to give me your ticket.You've got a couple of minutes to think about it.

Dr Kwame McKenzie : So,do I get your lottery ticket? Well,the chances are most of you will have turned me down,even though you're just as likely to win with my ticket as your own.

[The emotions cause you to be attached to your own numbers,when in fact it makes sense to swap tickets,since you get a lottery ticket plus a pound,with which you can buy a second ticket and even pick the same numbers you've just give away,thus giving you a second chance of winning,and retaining your emotional security.So using the knee-jerk emotional response without thinking leads to the incorrect choice -LB]

So why are our personal numbers so significant to us? Well we all believe that because they are our numbers,they increase our chances of winning.

[The lottery runners know that we make these kinds of false assertions and exploit them,they take advantage of our ignorance of the way numbers work.We might believe that they increase or chances,but we are wrong.We should know that they don't -LB]

That we have some sort of control over it all.But it's simply not true.It's a fallacy called "The illusion of control".

The National Lottery ad campaign plays on this and on your hopes and fantasies.

Georgina Matthews (Saatchi & Saatchi PLC) :I think most people accept that the odds of winning the jackpot are enormous,but people live in hope,and someone out there has won,and someone out there will win and that's what people dream about,and I think they know in the back of their minds,they're probably not going to win the big one.But the chance is still there, and that's what we market,we market the chance of winning.

[People often retort to me "Well someone's got to win haven't they?" which entirely misses the point.If you are playing the pea shell game where there are 3 shells and 1 pea (or "find the lady") then "someone has to win".The point is that the stall holder wins 2 times out of 3 and the punter wins 1 time out of 3 and so the punter loses more than he wins,on average,and has to lose more in principle.

The lottery runners exploit the fact that people see a giant carrot on the end of a stick and react emotionally to this thinking that it will solve all their problems.When in fact all it does is create more problems because of the punters misunderstanding of how probability works,and even if they do it can still have a damaging effect,as the following items demonstrate -LB]


Man : We'll sit down and watch it every Saturday,you know.If you haven't won the pools at 5 o'clock,you've got the lottery to look forward to haven't you? And when you haven't won that, you've got to go back to work Monday and start all over again.

Man : I listen to Mystic Meg and laugh,thinking "It might be me,it might not be" because certain things match on,you know,my name or the house number,something like that,you think "Weahh,it's there",but I don't believe it.

Man : Until the numbers come up,you definitely think "Oh I've definitely got it",you know,really,it's gonna be me this week.

Iain Brown : I think the nation actually discovered in talking to each other in all sorts of places,we discovered each others fantasies,you know about what we would do with that amount of money.Very entertaining for a while,I must say.I enjoyed discovering some people's fantasies myself! (laughs)

But it is about fantasy.It's about this remote possibility that I can live with,that will maybe help me through this grotty week.

[It's a pity that people's fantasies and escapism involves seeing reality as so dull and uninspiring. Maybe if they spent their money wisely and didn't fritter it away on useless hopes life might have some meaning,certainly those at gamblers anonymous might agree.There are better things to hope for than having pots of dosh -LB]

And then of course,at the end of the week,you're punished viciously,because you're fantasies are taken away from you.

[And then you see life as dull and uninspiring,because your dreams aren't handed to you on a plate.Attaining your dreams takes hard work,commitment,and an ability to not respond to superficial whims,courage,determination,application.None of these things are required to win a lottery,and so it undermines the basic necessities of life to achieve.There is more than a million pounds worth of hope in seeing a child understand an idea than in the frivolous waste of gambling -LB]

Man : Well if you don't do it you'll never win will you? So therefore I do it. [Impeccable logic which completely misses the point -LB]

But I just take...the money comes out of the housekeeping,you know,so it doesn't cost me anything. [That's some kind of bizarre bank account that is operating there! -LB]

Man : I wouldn't have gambled it on the horses or anything.It's just something else to give us a bit of interest on a Saturday night,on the off chance that I might win the 8 million.

[Why not the horses? He has more chance of winning! An indication of poor risk assessment -LB]

Iain Brown : It's already bringing into gambling a whole new population of people,who wouldn't have thought of themselves as gamblers,still don't think of themselves as gamblers, quite yet.But in a little bit it time,they are going to think more and more of themselves as gamblers,and some of them will move on.

"Was that 7 or 11?"


Georgina Matthews : The lottery is a way of life now,and in that sense I suppose the lottery will grow the gaming market.But it's not seen as a gamble in any dangerous sense,it's seen as something you will do to highlight your Saturday evening,just as you might buy a magazine or buy a box of chocolates.It's no more than that really.

[That's what's so insidious about it.People don't see what is happening.It is all the more absurd when government policy is to have a greater emphasis on numeracy and according to this programme 2/3 of schoolchildren gamble and 7% of those steal to maintain the habit.If the government was really serious about numeracy it would curtail the lottery.Until then it's policy is a joke -LB]

That's partly because the odds of winning the lottery,particularly of winning the jackpot are 14 million to one.Anyone who's a good gambler,isn't going to accept that those are entertaining odds.

[You heard it straight from the horses mouth,so to speak -LB]

(At the horse races:-)

Man : I think you've got more chance in gambling on horses than you have on the lottery.I do the lottery too,because it's like everything else,I like to gamble so I try my luck at everything, but you've got more odds,I think,having a bet,a pound on a horse,20 to 1 than what you have a pound on the lottery.

[But the carrot isn't so big at the races -LB]

Man : If you do horses,you can expect to get something back,and pools you expect to get something back now and again,but the lottery's just a pound down the drain really.(laughs)

Interviewer :But you still do it?

Man : Oh yeah,yeah.

Dr Kwame McKenzie : Some believe that gamblers who are addicted are just weak-willed. After all many people who gamble every week, keep it under control.

But last year,compulsive gambling was recognised as a psychiatric illness.This means that sufferers have tangible symptoms,like a loss of control,extremes of emotion,and withdrawal symptoms.Janet,who plays one- armed bandits has recognised that she's addicted,and it's this honesty that's the first step to sorting out her problems.

Janet : Go and bring Jessica in for her dinner please.

People say,"You can stop,you've no need to go in",but it's so hard.It draws you there.I think,"I'm going to go in and win and I'm going to walk out".I put £30 and I tell myself,"When I've lost the £30,that's it,I'm going home",but I lose the £30 and then I go back into the rest of my money,me gas or electric money,I don't eat,I don't drink,it can be 6 or 7 hours before I use a toilet,because the machine takes over my life,and then when I come home,I'm physically sick,I have diarrhoea,and then I sleep...I might go to sleep at 4-5 o'clock in the afternoon and my husband has to look after the kids,and I don't wake up till the next morning.

I'm a bit worried about my little boy at 7,he likes the arcades,he likes the excitement and the fun,the lights,he likes the noises,but the other children associate the arcades with upset and heartbreak,because they see what goes on when I spend everything and they know they've got to do without.

[Thus is shown the chronic consequences of succumbing to your base urges and not understanding risk,and not using "cold mathematics" to analyse a situation.It has social consequences for a family,and the trend of being behest to gambling urges is passed insidiously to the next generation like a Dawkins "meme".Gambling is also at odds with government social policy,they want people to exit social poverty traps and yet leave in place devices that deliberately try and create poverty.If they were really serious they would remove gambling and educate people as to how it destroys lives -LB]

Dr Kwame McKenzie : Since Janet made that film,she's contacted Gamblers Anonymous.So are gambling addicts born or are they made? Well some physical differences have been shown, but there's a large psychological element.At PROMIS recovery clinic,they believe gambling addiction maybe part of a wider problem in their clients lives.Gambling addicts as well as others are seen in the same clinic.

Dr Robert Lefever (PROMIS) : What we're going to be looking at today is risk taking [Ref:Video:BB14:RI 3; N30:The Numbers Game;OB4 Equinox {Living Dangerously};Red File: Reith992.wri;Protext Files], gambling,in all its forms,not just the obvious ones,the casinos and so on,but you know any form of risk taking. Now all of us who have an addictive disease tend to live on a high.

When people come here they usually come for either alcohol problems or drug problems or food problems,but we find very commonly,that people have 3 or 4 outlets to their addictive disease,and gambling and risk taking is quite often one of those.

Woman : When the alcohol,the drugs weren't working,that's when I'd go on to like the gambling and the stealing.

Man : Sometimes I'd go shoplifting and like with a few mates,we'd just have this one day we'd dedicated to shoplifting.We'd have a competition to see who could nick the most things.

Dr Robert Lefever : All addicts are risk takers.All of us,and some of us have gambling as a particular risk,and this may take many different forms.For example,in my own case,I take risks on property,well people say,"Well,good for you",but speak to my wife,see how much we lost when the property markets went down.Equally,you know,because I didn't get drunk and crash cars or go out shooting heroine,people would imagine that,you know,I didn't have too much of a problem.But in fact,my risk taking caused my family very considerable hurt and caused me a lot of damage.

So PROMIS has the philosophy that all addictions can be equally damaging to the individuals who've got them.So gambling and risk taking can be a major problem for people who are gamblers.

When you step of the pavement you're taking a risk.How are we going to make that division between normal risks that everyone inevitably has to take in life,and the compulsive risks that you and I take?

Man : I mean the mad risk taking,where you know it's going to harm you,but you still do it.

Dr Robert Lefever : My belief is that in those of us who've got addictive disease,there's a defect in the mood centres of our brains we feel two steps down,and we discover substances and processes such as alcohol or drugs or gambling,or sex and love addiction or whatever,that make us two steps up again,and so we think "Wow,this is wonderful".But,look at the trouble we get from it.

Dr Kwame McKenzie : So despite spending so much of our lives gambling,we're actually terrible at assessing chances.

Dr Peter Ayton (City University,London) : A lot of events,are really,by their nature rather unpredictable,and it's very difficult to say exactly what will happen.Which horse will win,which football team will win,and so on and so forth.So its very tempting to avoid the sort of stress and anxiety that this uncertainty may evoke,by believing that there are methods and theories that one can use in order to predict what will actually happen.

[Thus belief in mysticism,and predicting and foretelling the future,is rife,especially concerning the lottery,even though it is all incapable of providing any real information on which a prediction can be based -LB]

If you talk to roulette players they will freely agree with you,that the laws of probability indicate that the chances are not,you know,all that good,and yet they will also argue that one can tell whether one is having a lucky day,or not,and that's where the skill comes in.

[This fallacy is exemplified in the Richard Dreyfuss film "Let it Ride",where his fellow punters urge him on to a compound bet that ultimately proves successful,which comes as a welcome relief to his long-suffering wife who is sick of hearing "No it'll happen this time,honest".The Robin Williams film" Seize the Day" is also instructive in the drawbacks of playing the stock market in order to make it big -LB]

So it's as if,although the wheel is random,their choices about what to bet on,of course are within their control,and they're attributing those choices to some causal mechanism with some kind of predictable outcome.But,of course,this is,you know,hopeless.

[The punter deludes themselves into thinking they can control a situation that is completely outside their propensity to control.Either they think they have a "skill" or they think they can use some property such as ESP to predict outcomes or they think they have some control over the device that the bet is based on,or they pick things such as shoe sizes or birthdays,which are personalised that they presume has some influence over the outcome for them.But it doesn't,and once again this is taken advantage of by the person running the gambling -LB]

" Oooooh,zero zero"

1st Woman : It's (indistinct) theory when the ball goes in number 22,because it's just a number you hate,not for any particular reason......just that you hate 22. [It's entirely irrational -LB]

2nd Woman : Well,look here now,look at the wheel nobody's on it.

1st Woman : Nobody likes it.

[That's just superstitious nonsense.It's no wonder they are taken advantage of -LB]

2nd Woman : Well,we don't particularly!

1st Woman : It's funny! It's the way people are. [Yes innumerate and superstitious -LB]

Woman : My numbers are zero,the zero area,never change,always the zero,even when it's not hitting it. [That's just plain stupidity -LB]

Man : There are as many systems as there are customers,and they're all useless.It's luck,pure and simple luck.

Click for Jehovah's Witness view of gamblingDr Peter Ayton : Well,certainly "luck" is a very commonly used term,and people use luck as if it were a sort of causal explanation.Maybe that part of the reasoning underlying gambling is that people think, "Well,you know,in the long run more people lose than win",and so on,but they may feel,"Well,it's worth it,because I feel somewhat different to other people.I am different to other people,because after all,I'm me,and they're just other people".

[Isn't the make-up here that of a control freak with a paranoid delusion living in a fantasy world,and suffering the consequences of not dealing with reality? -LB]

Dr Kwame McKenzie : So,not wanting to be statistics,makes us fall for basic fallacies. Because we want it so much,we don't realise that we're less likely to win the National Lottery, than to be struck by lightning.

Because plane crashes are easier to remember than taxi crashes,we don't realise that our plane journey is actually safer than our taxi ride to the airport,and because I like being in control, I make the mistake of thinking my kids are actually safer in the car with me than being left alone at home,they're not.But that's what the law says we've got to do.Goodnight.

Woman: When I see the machine I buy one,don't ask me what I'd do,I think die on the spot if we had a big win.

Man : I know the guy,a cab -driver who won the £1.7 million.Good luck to him.Hope I do the same.

Man : I've been lucky,taken a plunge.Why are you going to give us a million sometime? (laughs)

(Mindfield :

[Ref: Video: N30:The Numbers Game;C2:Equinox {Chance};Grey File:Focus3.wri;Quotes1.wri]




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