I did not bet on the game nor did I go for any of the many prop bets (longest field goal, length of national anthem, coin flip, etc.), though I enjoyed following on Twitter the travails of others who did. The Super Bowl is, of course, the single most gambled on contest in sports. Saw estimates ranging from $2 billion to as high as $10 billion being wagered worldwide on the game. Hard to know for sure, of course, since so much of that betting is not necessarily on the up and up, but it is safe to say a ton of cabbage changed hands yesterday based on what happened down in Miami.
For many people the Super Bowl is the one time all year when they will gamble on sports. The Super Bowl also often becomes a favorite time of year for pundits to opine about gambling, generally speaking. Among those articles one caught my eye over the weekend on the Fox News site, one titled “Super Bowl Gambling May Alter Your Brain.”
The article appeared in the “Science/Technology” section, so I guess what we’re looking at there is technically reporting, not editorializing. Actually, it probably doesn’t qualify as either, really. The piece basically just compiles quotes from three sources as a way of trying to support that sensationalistic headline.
First, the author quotes a junior faculty member in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia pointing out that while most believe “gambling is enjoyable and harmless,” for some “it is as destructive as being addicted to drugs.” No argument there, but that doesn’t really speak to the idea that our brains are changing.
The next source quoted is Kyle Siler, author of that study on online poker that appeared in The Journal of Gambling Studies. I wrote a few weeks ago about Siler’s article, which he titled “Social and Psychological Challenges of Poker,” mainly noting how Siler’s findings got muddled by USA Today in its reporting. The Fox piece similarly misrepresents Siler’s study, suggesting that it “showed that the more hands of poker someone plays, the higher the chances that he’ll walk away with smaller profits.”
I read the study and it actually says nothing at all like that. After pumping 26.9 million hands into Poker Tracker, Siler did find that the players with higher win rates were not the ones who won the most hands, percentage-wise. Then he offered some speculations about why that might be the case, including suggesting that winning small pots might gird one against the pain of losing big ones. But Siler does not suggest playing more hands leads to winning less -- rather, his main point (the one that keeps getting misrepresented) is that winning more hands does not directly correlate to winning more money.
A more accurate summary of Siler’s study -- one that sticks more closely to the text of his article as well includes a real interview with Siler (and not just a quote-grab) -- appears over at Casino Online. Some interesting discussion there about this “counterintuitive incentive structure” Siler says characterizes poker, as well as some further talk about the online game, if you are interested.
Getting back to the Fox News piece, though, we’re still not talking about how the brain works yet. Only the third source quoted in the piece offers anything along those lines, a researcher named Luke Clark who works at the Behavioral and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cambridge.
Last year Clark published a study in the academic journal Neuron that showed that when a person gambles, the brain responds similarly to near losses as it does to wins. That is, Clark looked at MRIs of people gambling and found the same parts of the brain appeared stimulated when they came close and lost as when they won. Clark’s study, titled “Gambling Near-Misses Enhance Motivation to Gamble and Recruit Win-Related Brain Circuitry,” concluded that these near misses actually “invigorate gambling through anomalous recruitment of reward circuitry,” increasing the desire to gamble despite the lack of monetary reward.
As he told the Fox interviewer, “a near miss is a signal you’re acquiring the skill, so it makes sense that your brain processes [it] as if [it] were a win.” This is even true, says Clark, when dealing with gambling games that are nothing but chance-based like slot machines (which were used in his study).
All very interesting, although if we go back to that headline, if gambling does “alter your brain” it sounds like it only does so temporarily -- not quite like the way, say, drugs or physical trauma might permanently damage one’s brain as the article’s headline seems to imply.
I do think Clark is probably on to something there with regard to the way coming close and losing can increase one’s desire to try again. But I also think one can easily go too far with talk about how gambling can “alter your brain.” Saying that suggests a greater than temporary change, which I don’t think Clark is necessarily saying. Such a claim also perhaps might encourage dubious arguments questioning the culpability of problem gamblers, too.
In fact, I’d compare what Clark is saying to the temporary “pleasure” I received from simply watching the game last night (without betting on it). I guess you could say my brain was momentarily altered by the experience. That cold medicine I took during the evening also probably altered my brain for awhile, too. But I think this morning my brain is pretty much the same as it was yesterday when I woke up.
Or maybe that’s just what my brain is telling me to say.