What can Pigeons teach us about Gambling Addiction

Gambling addiction is a often debated social problem. A lot has been said in Australia about the measures in place to combat gambling addiction. Specially slot machines, poker machines, or whatever they are called in your country, are causing financial problems for many people around the globe. These machines are programmed to be addictive as they tap into foundational psychological mechanisms.

Following the theory of instrumental conditioning, our behaviour is motivated by rewards and punishments. This is the basic mechanism used to educate children, the infamous carrot and stick approach.

The Psychology of Gambling Addiction

With a poker machine, every time we press a button there is a predefined, albeit unpredictable, probability that we are rewarded for that behaviour. In instrumental conditioning this is called a variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement. This method has proven to be very addictive. Even animals in experimental situations have been seen to become addicted to the conditioned behaviour. Watch the video below to see how gambling operators tap into non-rational drives to make us addicted to gambling.

We are using this same mechanism to change our cat Stinkey’s behaviour. She drives us crazy every morning in an attempt to get some canned food. Because we irregularly reward her behaviour we introduced a variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement, which leads to addictive behaviour. Stinkey became addicted to begging for canned food.

We recently started to give her a little bit every night and create a fixed-ratio reinforcement schedule and the obsessive begging has quickly extinguished.

How to make airline food taste good: Using perception psychology to enhance travel enjoyment

Airline food: dinner on board CX134 from Melbourne to Hong Kong

Dinner on board CX134 from Melbourne to Hong Kong

Just arrived in Hong Kong and had a great flight with Cathay Pacific. Even the food tasted great. This might, however, not necessarily be the case because it objectively did taste very nice, but because I was wearing noise cancelling head- phones.

In a recent paper in the Food Quality and Preference journal it was shown that background sounds unrelated to airline food diminish the taste qualities.1 Research subjects were blindfolded and ate different foods either in silence or while listening to a quiet or loud background white noise. They found that tastes are dampened by noise. Saltiness and sweetness diminished when eating in the presence of loud compared to quiet background noise. Second finding was that food was reported to taste crunchier in the presence of background noise. Lastly, but most importantly, the more the subjects enjoyed the noise, the more the liked the food.

I thus enjoyed my Cathay Pacific meal, bopping away at the sweet sounds of Miles Davis on my noise cancelling headphones.


  1. A.T. Woods et al. (2011) Effects of background noise on food perception, Food Quality and Preference 22(1): 42-47. 

Are you sure? Cognitive dissonance in magic tricks

Performing magic touches at the core of how we see the world. The fact that magic is possible, the fact that our brains can be deceived so easily proves that reality is not necessarily what we perceive it to be. Alvo Stockman expressed this fundamental fact on his video blog recently:

Being sure is at the core of being human and it is at the heart of what magic relies on … People need to mentally commit to something before it is destroyed.

Here he eloquently surmises the essence of magic. The magician creates a situation of which the spectator is sure that it is true. Although the fact that the observer knows that he or she is watching a magician will create some suspicion; but, because they don’t know what will happen next it is almost impossible not to believe what they see, as there is no hint available to what is going on. The technique, but more importantly the presentation, of the magician make the spectator’s mind “mentally commit” to the state of affair as presented by the magician.

In this video, you can see me performing the Ninja Rings in the local suq (street bazaar) in Luxor, Egypt. Although the routine keeps repeating the same effect, the technique is so deceptive that there is no way the spectator can think anything else but to assent to the state of affairs as presented by me, i.e., the rings penetrate each other.

The spectators will search for solutions in their mind, and when handing the rings out for inspection, they find out that their perceptions were wrong. One particular spectator in this video gets a bit too enthusiastic, nearly destroying the actual weld that holds the rings together. He is very committed to obtaining certainty rather than believing what I cause him to see. Alvo continues in more general terms:

Every day our brain makes decisions about what we see in probabilistic terms. The more information we have, the more certain we are about the world.

Cognitive Dissonance

In magic, we create the opposite situation. The magician presents a reality that does not conform with reality as the spectator is used to see. This difference creates cognitive dissonance in the spectator’s mind—a gap between the state of mind of the spectator and what they see. In good magic, an experience is created in which the spectator becomes more and more or less confident about what they see until a point has been reached where no rational explanation is immediately available and a state of astonishment.

Know Thyself: Personality Tests are Worthless

One’s own is well hidden for one’s
own; and of all treasure troves, one’s
own is the last to be excavated …

Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra

The importance of self-knowledge has been acknowledged through the ages and across cultures. A visitor to the temple of Apollo at Delphi in ancient Greece was commanded to “Know Thyself” and Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote that “self-knowledge is enlightenment”.

Self-knowledge is different from knowledge of the objective world. It is, by definition, subjective and is thus not easily obtained, as illustrated by the epigraph. Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers, two of the most influential psychotherapists of the last century, theorised that people have a hidden personality of which they are not aware. It is this hidden, subconscious, nature of personality that creates epistemological hurdles and makes self-knowledge a difficult to obtain treasure.

Many different psychometric tests have been developed to determine a subject’s personality or other aspects of the self. These tests are used in clinical settings and research, but are also widely used for recruitment and leadership development.

For my MBA studies I was asked to undertake a battery of personality and motivation tests in an attempt to improve my self knowledge. The main question to be answered is whether this myriad of numbers and classifications actually describe me as a person and whether they can provide a deeper self-knowledge to enable me to be a better manager.

Numerous studies have shown that psychometric tests can be used to make predictions about behaviour of individuals and job performance. There are, however, many situational variables, such as organisational culture, which influence behaviour and research indicates that personality plays the greatest role in situations where there are no social clues on how to behave .

Some of the often used methodologies are scientifically problematic. There is little empirical evidence to confirm the validity of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Also for Theory X/Y and ERG Theory there is little or no evidence to confirm the validity of their assumptions.

Problematic aspect of self administered psychometric testing is a high level of inherent confirmation bias, also known as the ‘Forer Effect’. Am I really very conscientious, or do I perceive myself to be conscientious? Am I really an extroverted person, or is it my high level of energy which subjugates any innate introvertedness? Do the results of these tests provide a picture of my inner self, or are they a reflection of my perceived self?

The test results do not actually reveal any information beyond what has been entered by me, because the results are only a linguistic rearrangement of the answers. This is confirmed by recent research that showed that most people are able to guess the outcome of personality tests without actually undertaking them.

Comprehensive self-knowledge can thus not be obtained by completing surveys because they can only reveal the perceived self and are not capable of unearthing the inner (subconscious) self. Psychometric tests are suitable only as a vehicle for introspection, providing an entry point for reflecting on one’s self. This introspection can, however, not occur without life experience to reflect on.

Obtaining self knowledge, considered essential for leadership development, requires something deeper and more substantial, as alluded to by Nietzsche in the epigraph to this blog entry. As our behaviour is predominately controlled by situational variables, the only way to obtain self-knowledge is life experience.

Only by being exposed to a multitude of situations and challenges can we know what our personality actually is. As we gain life experience, our inner and perceived selves slowly converge. Maturity is the situation were the inner self and the perceived self are almost identical and self-knowledge becomes apparent. Even the most carefully designed personality test can not leapfrog the knowledge obtained through life experience. Carl Gustav Jung, who inspired development of the MBTI recognised this when he wrote:

Anyone who wants to know the human psyche … would be better advised to abandon exact science … and wander with human heart through the world.

This foray into psychometric testing leaves me to conclude that no psychometric test can ever replace the fullness of life experience to obtain true self-knowledge. Experiences such as exposing oneself to a challenging situations, occasionally exploring the boundaries of morality, experiencing different cultures or going through emotional turmoil are the only meaningful ways to gain self-knowledge.