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Biology 103
2003 Third Paper
On Serendip

Why Gamble?

Enor Wagner

Why Gamble?

For centuries, people have indulged in different types of gambling: poker, horse races, bingo, lottery, and slot machines. Gambling has seduced any and almost everyone between the ages of sixteen and ninety years old. Before turning eighteen, the legal age of casino and horse race admittance, those younger make monetary bets on football and high school stunts. Gambling is even more prevalent today than it was yesterday with the added attraction of on-line casinos, offering jackpot equivalent to twenty years salary in exchange for a credit card / debit card number. Gambling was suppressed in the 1920's as a result of Prohibition and because of this will forever lure people into its taboo trap. Gambling as sport is hard to resist because it offers immediate gratification. Not only is there a chance that you may quadruple the amount of money that you lay down, a literal payoff, but there is also a feeling of hope, an alternate limbo between reality and fantasy that can be translated into a sort of mental payoff. The question is: is it all about the money?

It couldn't be all about the money, unless the general public was extremely stupid. The odds of winning the lottery are lesser than the odds of someone being struck by lightning (1 in 649,739) or than someone being killed by a terrorist attack abroad (1 in 650,000). (7). It has been said, "If you bought 100 tickets a week your entire adult life, from the age of 18 to 75, you'd have a 1 percent chance of winning the lottery". (7) Now, a number of psychological studies have been done which indicate that the desire to play the lottery has more to do with the inability or unconcern of a person to calculate the total sum of their own money over time spent of these dollar tickets. The hope and fantastic feeling they receive is worth more than the dollar they give the 7-11 clerk at that time.

Casino games create a different sensation. Whether it be cards, slots, or dice games after being seated in front of it for an hour or two there will generally be a win, some kind of win. Usually that win is small. It serves the person, or the brain, with a sort of reward. The reward entices the person to want to continue their game so to get another reward (7).

The basis for this affirmative award is biological. Research done at the Massachusetts General Hospital has showed similar brain activity induced by prize money to food and drug rewards. The scientists measuring this brain activity compared it with giving a cocaine addict an infusion of cocaine. (2) An experiment was set up wherein the brain activity of the subjects was measured while they gambled. "Each subject was offered one of three spinners: a 'good spinner' offered them a chance to earn $10, $2.50, or nothing; an 'intermediate spinner' offered $2.50, $0, or -$1.50; and a 'bad spinner' let them win nothing or lose, -$1.50 or -$6." (3) The brain activity was measured with a high-field functional magnetic resonance imaging, otherwise known as an fMRI, while they were spinning for six seconds and after then after they had spun. The results showed that the brain activity proved to be strong, moderate, and low in accordance with the level of spinning - good, intermediate and bad. The proportions always demonstrated the expected brain activity. The scientists performing this experiment came to the conclusion that money serves as the same type of reward to humans as does drugs and food; it sets into motion a reward mechanism in the brain providing relative stimulus to the amount of reward or loss which is taking place. "The similarity suggests that a common brain circuitry is used for various types of rewards."(3)

Considering the conclusion of this experiment to be true, there still remains an unsettling question pertaining to gambling and brain circuitry. Why do some people gamble more than others? At first I searched for some demographic conclusions to support a hypothesis that some group of people gambled more than others. However, there simply isn't much discrimination when it comes to gambling.

The National Opinion Research Center, a government based study, showed that there is no gender gap in terms of gambling: the 1998 statistic showed 49% women and 51% men gamble in general. (1) The consensus showed that all different ages gamble. Some specifications were made like people between thirty and sixty tended to gamble with more money than the younger and older, but that seems natural because that range probably gains the most salary. It also specified that those under eighteen tended to play less in casino, lottery and horse races but that is because they were not allowed in. Thus, those under eighteen were showed to make more wagers outside of a gambling facility than the other age groups. Depending on the game, there seemed to be a pretty even distribution of race among gamblers. The bottom line being; the desire to gamble does not depend on any specific background or gender or age or culture. It depends on the human desire to gain monetary pleasure, to get something for little to nothing, to be rewarded via dollars rather than food or drugs.

The demographic statistics and equalities listed above still do not account for why some crave gambling more than others. Distinctions have been made among gamblers. The categories are as follows: non-gambler, low-risk gambler, at-risk gambler, problem gambler and pathological gambler. (1) The desire to gamble becomes increasingly more prevalent and obsessive as the levels progress.

A pathological gambler, according to the DSM-IV criteria is constantly preoccupied with gambling, increases the amounts of money spent over time on gambling so not to achieve a tolerance, cannot stop gambling, gambles as an escape, attempts to 'break even' after having lost money, lies constantly to friends and family about gambling, sometimes commits illegal acts to support gambling, risks significant relationships, jobs, or education for gambling, and uses the financial help of others to be 'bailed out' of some situation caused by gambling. (1) Why are these people so obsessed with gambling that it takes over their lives? It has been hypothesized that pathological gamblers have dysfunctional reward pathways. "When the pathways function correctly, one important result is a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that can stimulate pleasurable feelings." Pathological gamblers have been proven to have lower activity in an enzyme that breaks down neurotransmitters. This may create a problem for serotonin distribution. Also, researchers have identified a greater amount of certain genetic configurations in pathological gamblers, a variation which may be responsible for the deficient reward pathway. (4) The medication prescribed to some of these pathological gamblers who were tested increased their serotonin levels and seemed to have positive effects in the way of their resisting the urge to gamble.

Many equate the pathological desire to gamble with a problem in the decision-making area of the brain, a constant lapse in judgment so to speak. The areas of the brain associated with the decision-making process are the middle frontal, inferior frontal and orbital gyrus. (4)

While this neurological analysis may offer some understanding to why people gamble for monetary / reward purposes, it does not explain the bigger relationship between human beings and gambling. Gambling does not necessarily need to involve money; it can instead be translated to a risk. People gamble everyday whether it be the tasting of a new food or skipping an important business meeting. It seems that gambling is a part of life necessary to perpetuate the human species.

Diversification, a part of natural life, involves adapting to different environments and niches. Say a bee only acquired nutrients from one specific flower, never venturing out to samples other types of pollen, what would happen? Suppose one winter that specific type of flower failed to survive, or some sort of spontaneous extinction occurred, all the bees who fed off this flower would become extinct as well. The same sort of thing may occur if a person moved to a different country, wherein the food looked completely different. In order to stay alive, that person would have to take a chance on a new type of diet. Human beings, as well as a majority of the remaining Animal Kingdom are inclined to diversify and adapt to new surroundings in order to stay strong and able to perpetuate their species.

The same notion of adaptation for survival applies to drastic temperature changes and the effect it has on the body. (5) "Although shell temperature is not regulated within narrow limits the way internal body temperature is, thermoregulatory responses do strongly affect the temperature of the shell, and especially its outermost layer, the skin." The temperature of the environment is directly related to the thickness of this shell. If the shell is needed to conserve heat, it may expand to a several centimeters underneath the skin's surface, however, if the environment is warm, then the shell will tend to only be about one centimeter thick. This shell of warmth protects people in the case that they wish to change environmental settings, or so the same species can survive in all different locations. The complex nature of the human body responds well to their desire to gamble, to diversify, to extend their minds and risk.

Whether it be monetary, behavioral or just plain desire to risk, humans are drawn towards the new and the chancy. It is the danger of loss and the thrill of life that keeps us breathing.


1)Government issued National Gambling Study, Approximately one hundred pages of gambling statistics and surveys issued to different casinos across the nation. Provides the DSM-IV criteria for Pathological Gambler. Also explians the different catagories of gamblers.

2)Science Daily Homepage, An article containing neurobiological conclusions about gamblers.

3)Scientific America Homepage, More neurobiological findings, explains a relevant experiment performed which relates to the study of gambling in relation to biology.

4)The Wager homepage, Denotes the hypothesised difference between gamblers and pathological gamblers in biological terms.

5)Study of Temperature and Human Beings, this article discusses the adaptive mechanisms of the human body.

6)Mathamatical Statistics about Gambling, explains statistics for winning in a mathamatical fashion.

7)Gene Expression homepage, Statistical information about the likliness of succeeding as a gambler.

8)Gambling, Biology, and Psychics, Article offers alternative suggestions about why one may gamble.

9)Could Gambling Save Science?, Article links gambling to science as a matter of human interest.

Book References

1)Alvarez,A. The Biggest Game in Town. New York: Chronicle Books, 2002.

2)Brunson,Doyle. Doyle Brunson's Super System. Cardoza Pub, 1979.

3)Dostoeyevsky,Fyodor. The Gambler. New York: Viking Press, 1966.

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