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.

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