Going against the odds

Speaker talks of morality and probability in gambling

Joseph Mazur, author of <i>What’s Luck Got to Do With It?,</i> recently posed several psychological questions at Chico State during his exploration of the mathematics of gambling.

Joseph Mazur, author of What’s Luck Got to Do With It?, recently posed several psychological questions at Chico State during his exploration of the mathematics of gambling.

photo Courtesy of joseph mazur

“I’m feeling lucky.” “The wheel is hot.” “My odds are good.”

To gamblers, these are familiar expressions. They are also figments of the imagination.

That’s according to Joseph Mazur, author of What’s Luck Got to Do With It? (2010), who during a lecture on the Chico State campus last Wednesday (March 23) asked some thought-provoking questions about the psychological aspects of gambling.

Why do people gamble? What compels them to take risks?

And, more important, why does taking gambling risks make certain people feel so high?

The university’s Center for Applied and Professional Ethics and the Humanities Center brought Mazur, a retired mathematics professor from Vermont’s Marlboro College, to Chico to explore why people gamble despite odds that are stacked against them. He also discussed the morality of the government in its sanctioning of and profiting from gambling, which is, after all, a behavior that affects people in ways similar to drug and alcohol addiction.

“Gambling is about odds. It’s about the chance of things going one way or another,” he began, in front of a crowd of about 30 people that ranged from students to members of the community. “And it’s also about risk.”

Humans, like other animals, have taken risks as a means of survival since primordial days, when they risked their lives to hunt and collect food. But, unlike other animals, they have developed a propensity to take unnecessary risks (bungee jumping, for example) for complex psychological reasons, Mazur said.

“We humans take risks beyond [what is] necessary for human survival,” he said, segueing into his discussion about gambling from an ethical, mathematical and psychological perspective. “But why?”

Early casinos evolved out of 17th-century coffeehouses in Western Europe, where game-players discovered the “math of chance,” a line of mathematical thought that uses probability to predict outcomes, Mazur said.

“There was a precise time in history when people discovered that it’s not the will of the gods—there really is a way to predict the future,” he said. “This tells us we can make a profit. Before that, the only way to make a profit gambling was to cheat.”

The ability to predict the future by using mathematical probability—the number of favorable opportunities divided by the whole number of opportunities—gave gamblers a false feeling of control, Mazur said. That feeling of control was the first of what he calls “illusions”—false thought patterns that trick individuals into thinking the odds are in their favor while gambling. This sparked other delusional thoughts, such as the idea that luck can be possessed and that randomness can be controlled.

Those illusions interact with what Mazur calls gambling “effects,” such as the tendency to “chase losses” by escalating bets, or considering it a win when one “breaks even.”

However, those tricks of the mind have backed millions of people into a financial corner. Research shows gambling addiction releases dopamine in the brain similarly to the ways in which alcohol and drugs do, and the addiction is worse for some than others.

“Pathological” gamblers are people who cannot stop gambling, while “problem” gamblers are also those who have negatively affected others by their habit, such as stealing or being unable to hold a job, Mazur said.

He cited 2007 research from the National Research Council, including statistics that about 4.5 million Americans (1.5 percent of the population) qualify as problem gamblers, and about 16.2 million (5.4 percent) are considered to be pathological gamblers.

In the gaming state of Nevada, where 140,000 individuals (5 percent of the population) are considered pathological or problem gamblers, many legislators and residents nevertheless see gambling as a positive industry that creates revenue.

Mazur described a number of ethical questions surrounding government-sanctioned gambling, including the propensity for people to develop uncontrolled addictions. The percentage of gambling addictions has been proven to be higher in areas where there is a lot of temptation, especially Nevada, he noted.

On top of that, many gamblers live at or below the poverty level and experience a lower quality of life because of their addiction. Of those enrolled in Gamblers Anonymous, 66 percent reported having contemplated suicide, and many others reported trying to “win back” homes and other possessions they lost by gambling.

Referring specifically to Nevada, Mazur noted that the state eventually will have to support problem gamblers with the same funds taken in through legalized operations. The state’s $2 slot-machine fee has been used to fund gambling research and treatment programs since 2005. (Today, state legislators are trying to redirect half of those fees, which amassed $1.5 million in 2009, according to the The New York Times, to help alleviate the state’s general fund deficit.)

At the end of his talk, Mazur entertained a question about slot-machine presets, and noted that many machines are marked with misleading information. An audience member mentioned machines that promise a 99 percent “pay out” rate, which actually means players are likely to get 99 cents back for every dollar they put in.

“[Casinos] are playing a game with you,” Mazur summed up.