If you ask people why they enjoy gambling, the answer usually involves the uncertainty, the thrill and the highs and lows that come with a winning or losing streak. It can be difficult to understand exactly how these feelings happen – or how you can make sure people feel them at your next party! Luckily, psychologists and neurologists have studied what our brains really respond to when we’re gambling.
All About the Rewards
The Dopamine System in our brains is a system that helps us learn. Dopamine, when released, makes us feel really good. So when we do something our brain likes, like eating sugar or conquering a difficult task, it rewards us with a little splash of dopamine.
Gambling activates the dopamine system: the brain likes winning, so it rewards us with dopamine. The brain especially enjoys uncertainty. A study found that the brain releases more dopamine if a reward is unexpected than if it is expected. Think about the difference between eating a bar of chocolate that you bought vs one that you received as a surprise gift.
Scientists also found that bright lights and noises accompanying a win can heighten the dopamine response, increasing our pleasure at winning. So, for your gambling nights, try to make winning as fun and stimulating as possible. Play some victory music, get the lights going and really celebrate!
As humans, we enjoy feeling like we are in control of things, even if we aren’t. What can make gambling in particular enjoyable is the illusion of control, or the idea that we can influence the outcome. This is why people prefer to roll their own dice in craps or choose their own lotto numbers – they feel like they’re influencing the outcome and it’s more fun that way. Give people the chance to feel like they have a say in what happens next and watch how much more they enjoy playing.
Looking for a Pattern
Our brains are wired to search for patterns everywhere. It’s a matter of survival – if our caveman ancestors could tell when prey would return to a certain spot, or which plants caused illness, they were likely to live longer. The reason our brains become so engaged with gambling is that they are looking for a pattern, even though there definitely isn’t one. This results in the Gambler’s Fallacy, which is when people tend to think that, if they’ve lost several times in a row, they’re due a win, even though that isn’t true, logically.
Similarly, a near miss feels better to the brain than a loss does, even though they’re functionally the same thing. This is why, even if they’re set up to lose more often than they win, people still enjoy gambling and sports betting in the US – the near misses feel just as good as a win and people think it forms part of a larger pattern. This search for a pattern is why people enjoy games like blackjack and slot machines – they’re total games of chance and our brains refuse to accept it, but that all makes it more fun.