Monday, August 16, 2010

Why we don't let pigeons gamble

I'm not much of a gambler, but I have a close family member who is.  Shortly after I reached 21 years of age I found myself dragged frequently to the various Native American casinos in the area, so that this person could have company, and, presumably, because she thought I was enjoying myself, too.

To be completely honest, I did enjoy myself most of the time.  Bright lights, bells, alcohol.  It's preferable to literally dropping your money into a toilet bowl.

One thing I noticed during my trips was the thick encyclopedia of superstitions this person had developed around the building.  She got upset when she couldn't park in her lucky spot (where she'd parked the day she won 1,500 dollars).  She religiously stopped the slot machines' rollers one second after they started rolling.  She always ordered a single Miller the moment she walked in, and that's all she would drink.  I actually once heard her blame a bad day at the casino on the fact that she hadn't been able to order her Miller early enough.

All these things sound crazy, except that I was somewhat susceptible, too.  I came to think of one side of the building as the "lucky" side, for instance.  Whenever I caught myself indulging in such things, I would make a reality check.  "You're becoming a superstitious pigeon," I would think.

Some of you know what I'm talking about, and some of you just think I just have cute ways of insulting myself.  Let me explain.

In the forties, a psychologist named B.F. Skinner did an experiment on some pigeons.  I'll give it to you in brief, and his paper on the subject is linked below.  Skinner would take a hungry pigeon, and then, for a few minutes a day, put it inside of a special cage where a container of food would automatically be given to the pigeon for five seconds at a time, at regular intervals.  The result was, one pigeon ended up thrusting his head into the corners of the cage, one of them kept lifting its head abruptly, as if throwing something off of itself, one of them was pecking toward the floor.

It makes sense.  Trust me.

What happened was, the pigeon would be hungry, in the cage, and while sitting there unhappy it would do something.  Say it smoothed out its wing feathers.  Immediately, the food comes in, the pigeon eats, and the food leaves.  Now, when you're a pigeon, this is no different from having food arrive when you press a button.  The pigeon realizes that smoothing its wing feathers had made the food come in.  It does this action a few more times, and lo!  More food.  Now the pigeon's suspicion is confirmed, and it continues to be confirmed, and researchers from the next room walk in to wonder exactly what drug Skinner had fed this pigeon.

The casino is like this.  A friend of mine once likened a slot machine to a toilet that you drop quarters in until it backs up, spits out quarters, and you feel like you've won.  Casinos are so popular because you do "win" every once in a while.  Our minds naturally link cause and effect (which is natural) and when we're faced with things that are random, these causal links can give us false beliefs.  Not to mention that the games are designed to give us just enough control to hide the fact that we have none.

So don't wear your lucky shoes to the casino.  Don't park in your lucky spot, don't eat a lucky corn dog.  Or, when someone walks in and sees you, they're going to wonder exactly what drug you've been fed.

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