I recently spent a night in Atlantic City with some friends to celebrate my birthday. As far as I knew, my brain was simply trying to decide between red or black, hit or stay, keep playing or walk away. Little did I know this was only a fraction of the activity going on in my head.
Two recent studies have delved into the psychology of gambling. The results of one of the studies are in line with my casino visits. The other, however, clashes a bit with my experience. I’ll start with the study that I found to be more congruent with my opinions.
Spanish psychologist Josep Marco-Pallares paired partners to play a very simple computer gambling game. Only one participant was doing the actual wagering, while the other either (1) had money on the same outcome as the gambler, (2) had money on the opposite outcome, or (3) was a neutral observer.
As expected, the brain responses of the active gamblers were distinct for wins and losses. The researchers were interested in the partner’s brain activity, though, and in the first two scenarios those responses were as expected: in the first, it mirrored the gambler’s; in the second, it was the opposite.
However, even when the gambling partner had no stake in the outcome, the brain responses of the two were the same when the gambler lost money. In other words, the observer reacted as if he/she had lost money as well. Interestingly, this similarity of responses was not evident when the gambler won.
I have certainly noticed this behavior in the casino, even if I could only go by outward reactions as opposed to brain scans. Last weekend, my friends and I huddled around another friend who was playing blackjack. I was certainly happy when he won, and congratulated him for a good hand. But I didn’t truly feel all that happy for him. I guess I was just happy he didn’t lose.
When he lost a hand, though—which, unfortunately, happened far more frequently—my empathy was definitely authentic. In fact, at times it seemed like I was more upset than he was over a losing hand (perhaps because I’m a more conservative gambler than he is).
Later in the night we played Pai Gow poker, and the results of Marco-Pallares’ study were happening before my eyes. With just one seat open at the table, I was the only one who sat down. However, two of my friends and I pooled our money to buy some chips. When my hand won, we split the profits three ways. Likewise, we all took a financial hit when we lost. It was clear we were all experiencing the same emotions—the joys of winning and the devastation of defeat.
After about an hour of playing, our other two friends joined us at the table. They stood with the two friends who were betting with me, but they simply observed. When I revealed a weak hand, all four shook their heads in disappointment. But when I had a monster hand, only my two fellow bettors seemed to show excitement.
The second study, conducted by Wellesley College psychologist Erik Schlicht, deals with how our opponents’ facial expressions influence the way we bet in poker. Participants were pitted against a computer opponent displaying a variety of facial expressions (as represented on the screen by a photo of a human). By giving participants similar hands and making them wager the same amount, researchers were able to isolate distinct facial expressions to record their effect.
They discovered that a trustworthy face gave players the most difficulties. When facing a computer opponent with such an honest countenance, players made more mistakes and were more likely to fold (the thought being, if someone looks trustworthy and bets, that person must have a good hand). The neutral “poker face,” the researchers found, did not make much of a difference.
Although poker was at the heart of the study, the implications don’t apply to actual poker. In the study’s FAQ section written by Schlicht, he admits that this experiment doesn’t carry over to casino poker. “I purposefully ‘strip away’ many of the factors that contribute to decisions in a ‘real’ poker game,” he writes.
At the same time, he also notes that “research is important as it allows for implicit (unconscious) effects to be uncovered, whereas poker [players] who are exclusively relying on experience need to be consciously aware of effects in order [to realize they exist].” This brings up the possibility that I’m simply not always aware of why I’m betting/folding at the poker table.
Either way, both studies have implications beyond a simple wager at a casino, according to the Scientific American article. The first can help learn more about gambling addictions—recovering addicts could relapse simply by observing others play—while the study on faces could aid in our understanding of how we assess certain people/situations, not just at the poker table but in the real world.