The empirical literature on gambling behaviour is small but growing, and has tended to be dominated by qualitative/survey, cognitive, and behavioral approaches. Qualitative approaches to gambling focus on the prevalence, nature, and extent of different forms of gambling. Largely demographic or survey-based, these studies provide important details about changing social trends in gambling and gambling related problems. When writing an empirical article on gambling one has to cite at least one gambling prevalence survey in the opening paragraphs; you know, to set the scene, to introduce 'the problem'. And, let's face it, that's all these studies allow us to do: to get a feel for what's happening "out there", in the "real world".
Cognitive approaches emphasise the role played by a gambler's thoughts, feelings, attitudes or beliefs in initiating and maintaining gambling. Gamblers may be deemed to suffer from "erroneous beliefs" or to engage in "cognitive switching" whenever the outcomes of games of chance go against their "expectations". This is all well and good as a description of behaviour, but it is not a complete explanation of the causes of the behaviour observed. Woaahh, did I lose you? Let me back up.
In behaviour analysis, saying that a gambler persists in betting his/her final dollar on "red 16" because of faulty cognitive processes or beliefs etc. is to offer a mentalistic explanation, which is a mediational-based account that says, "the behavior you observe (in this case, betting on "red 16") is caused or initiated by a mysterious, nonphysical realm called 'beliefs'". We can't directly manipulate "beliefs". All we can manipulate are environmental events, like peoples' histories with "red 16" and money, and with instructions to behave in certain ways, etc. Mentalism seduces us into thinking that a complete explanation has been provided, when in fact it hasn't. If we can't manipulate it (i.e., can't predict and influence it's occurrence), then it's of no use to a behaviour analyst. We are arch-pragmatists after all.
Faced with this, and arriving under-dressed, grumpy and late to the party on empirically analyzing gambling behaviour, behaviour analysts have sought to "behaviouralize" common cognitive findings, while seeking to preserve their philosophical integrity. For instance, an article from my lab published in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior set about studying 'erroneous beliefs' from a behavioural perspective in a gambling-like task with young children. The article kicked off with the now-customary critique of all things non-behavioural, which, if you don't mind, I think is worth repeating here:
"A limitation of mediational explanations is that they tend to treat mediational "responses" (e.g., self-stated rules, beliefs, etc.) as primary causes. Individual differences with regard to mediational responses is purported to explain observed differences in gambling situations. Unfortunately, such an approach places the causes of gambling in the thoughts and other behaviors of the participants, and we are left unable to determine the conditions that cause those thoughts. Information about the mediational variables is important in that they allow us to predict gambling. However, they do not allow us to control the occurrence of gambling." (Dymond, Bateman, & Dixon, 2010, pp. 353-354).
Key here are "the conditions that cause those thoughts". What kind of thoughts might young kids have about a gambling-like task? Well, a previous study showed that 7-10 year olds could be taught to believe that one of two dice was "luckier" or "hotter" than another. The procedures were as follows. Kids chose between a red die and a blue die that 'rolled' a random number between 1 and 6, and a preselected game piece moved the predetermined number of spaces along a racetrack. Kids "raced" against the computer.
They love stuff like this, so the task was very reinforcing and they played it until it was clear that they did not have a preference for either the red or blue die. After all, why should they? Each die randomly rolled between 1 and 6, so kids distributed their choices relatively easily between them, as expected. Next, the kids were taught to associate one color (red) with "greater than" and another color (blue) with "less than". Then, they were re-exposed to the dice task and, guess what, they showed an increased preference for the red die, despite the identical outcomes of the two die! Red still rolled as it did (as indeed blue did) during the pretest phase, but now, after a relational intervention, kids behaved "as if" red was more likely to roll higher numbers than blue. Cool.
We wanted to extend these promising findings by examining whether or not we could first attach fixed, high and low roll outcomes to two die labelled with meaningless nonsense words (let's call them Bill and Ben) and then testing selections of indirectly related die (let's call them Dave and Nick). Right, I may have lost you again, which is bad, particularly as you have read this far. So, let me summarise the design of the study as follows:
1. Die labelled "Bill" always roll high numbers (4, 5, 6) and die labelled "Ben" always rolls low numbers (1, 2, 3).
2. Imagine if Mary was related to Bill, and Mary was related Dave; also, that Anne was related to Ben, and that Anne was related to Nick.
3. Now, if I asked you, would you prefer Bill or Ben, you'd probably opt for Bill. After all, it's loaded; it always rolls high numbers. Okay, but what if I asked you to choose between Dave and Nick, and you had no prior experience of these labelled die? Which one would you choose?
We predicted that young kids, given this history, would choose Dave over Nick. Why? Because Dave is indirectly related to the directly-experienced Bill die. And boy do I like that Bill die! So, despite never have "played" the Dave or Nick dice before, and the fact that, in reality, each rolled the same, I'm going to choose that there Dave more than Nick. And that's what the kids did, well, all but one (there's always one!). The kids also rated the Dave die more as more likable than the Nick die.
What does this all mean? What's it all got to do with knocking cognitive-based explanations of seemingly irrational gambling behavior? Well, it suggests a behavioural process whereby novel, indirectly experienced stimuli may come to control behavior. Direct experience with all stimuli and the good/bad things attached to them (such as high and low rolls) may not be necessary for complex gambling behavior to develop. In this way, "beliefs" about outcomes, and the behavior based upon these beliefs, can be said to be mediated by words. This allows us to remove ourselves from the spatio-temporal present and 'imagine' how good a nice Dave would be right now...
Gaining an empirical handle on these word-webs, and the behavioural processes responsible for them, is what my students, colleagues and I spend a lot of time doing. I'll blog about this on an ongoing basis.
Here's a link to a PDF of the paper described above.