There are a few unifying patterns across all civilisations that are reflective of the deeply wired human instincts we all possess. A concept of marriage, a mythology around death and, oddly enough, a tendency to gamble. That’s not to say every nation independently developed slot games or the idea of sports betting but whether it’s the Native Americans spending time at a malamtepupi or a Chinese group playing mahjong, gambling is just something that we as a species are drawn towards. But why is that? The answer, most likely, is psychological and reflects on how our brains process stimuli in the most primal way.
To talk about what makes gambling appealing, we have to talk about dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that gets released by a series of neurons called the reward system that links various sections of our brains together and is set up to help us learn. When we engage in an activity that has a beneficial result, it releases the dopamine so we feel pleasure and are encouraged to do so again.
Surprisingly, something that releases dopamine in our modern-day lives is gambling, due to two odd features of the reward system called reward uncertainty and the ‘near-miss’ phenomenon. Essentially, if you don’t know whether you’re going to win, then you get a greater release of dopamine. You might expect that this would happen when you win but it’s mostly released when you lose. There are a lot of theories about why this might be, but the most logical is just that it’s for evolutionary survival. Essentially, any time we attempt something difficult and nearly succeed, it’s beneficial to try again as we may achieve it next time.
The ‘near-miss’ phenomenon is a little different. If a player experiences a near miss, it creates the impression that, if they try again, they’re more likely to win. Which in a non-random event is a helpful element of how we learn as we can apply our previous experience. But with random events, like gambling, we still experience the same release but without a means to apply past experience. And the way that the brain encourages us to be persistent is, unsurprisingly, to release dopamine into the reward system and makes the entire activity an enjoyable experience. Of course, winning also releases the chemical as you’ve managed to acquire wealth which is a positive gain. But the end result is that, win or lose, you gain a feeling of success that makes you want to play again.
The effect of dopamine extends beyond games of chance though. The ability to discern risks and the thrill of success when you achieve something drives people to take up extreme sports and learn difficult skills to feel that same release of dopamine. Gambling is just an easier (and safer) method which is both why we gamble and why it’s such a popular pass-time in the modern day. Just bear in mind that if you weren’t spinning a roulette wheel, you might be jumping out of a plane.