For Gamblers, It’s About the Flash and the Cash

The blinking lights and pleasing sounds found at a casino aren't just for ambiance: they can actually encourage riskier decision-making.

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What motivates us more when gambling: the possible cash prize or the blinking lights and exciting jingles that accompany a win? According to new research, this audiovisual extravaganza can encourage riskier decision-making.

Inspired by earlier research that found rats were more willing to take risks when food rewards were accompanied with music and lights, researchers at the University of British Columbia set out to determine if the same would be true in humans.

The researchers studied 131 healthy adults playing two laboratory-based casino games; one, a simple card game, and the second a two-choice lottery game with a ‘safe’ option (guaranteed reward), and ‘risky option’ (win lots or nothing).

The volunteers played each task with half seeing an image of gold coins with a jingle every time they won, while the others played a silent version of the game with no images. The researchers also used eye-tracker technology to see what people were focusing on – information showing the odds of winning, or the accompanying sensory cues.

Although the win-associated sounds and visuals did not affect card game participants, they did encourage riskier decision-making in the lottery game, with participants showing more restraint when the sensory cues were removed.

“We found that an individual’s choices were less guided by the odds of winning when the casino-like audiovisual features were present in our laboratory gambling game,” explains the study’s lead author Mariya Cherkasova. “Overall, people took more risks when playing the more casino-like games, regardless of the odds.”

The researchers also noted that participants showed greater pupil dilation in games with sensory cues, suggesting that winning is more exciting when you have a light show to accompany your win.

As the sensory stimulation that accompanies casino games gets more advanced, with things like vibrating seats and 3D images, this study helps explain why people can find it difficult to resist the lure of casino-style games, even when the chance of winning is low.

But there is more to do to understand why some of us are more susceptible than others, and how problem gambling takes hold.

In the meantime, the B.C. Lottery Corp. have issued a statement saying they, and the province, are committed to responsible gaming and “have engaged Gambling Research Exchange Ontario to conduct research to determine the impacts of reducing or minimizing higher risk features of electronic gaming machines.”

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Amy Noise is a science communicator who is fascinated by how and why the world works. Always learning, she is passionate about science and sharing it with the world to improve and protect our health, society and environment. Amy earned her BSc (biology and science communication) at the University of Manchester, and MSc (nutrition science and policy) at King’s College London, UK. She tweets sporadically @any_noise