New research led by a McMaster University professor may help explain why problem gambling can be so difficult to treat.

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Associate kinesiology professor Jim Lyons led a team of international scientists who looked at how evolution, or basic survival techniques adapted by early humans, influence the decisions gamblers make when placing bets. (Supplied)

Associate kinesiology professor Jim Lyons led a team of international scientists who looked at how evolution, or basic survival techniques adapted by early humans, influence the decisions gamblers make when placing bets.

For the study, recently published in Frontiers in Psychology, scientists from McMaster University, the University of Lethbridge and Liverpool John Moores University examined how gamblers made decisions after they won or lost. 

They found that, like our ancestors, the gamblers relied on their past experiences to predict what might happen in the future. This is known as gambler's fallacy, Lyons said. But in games of chance where the outcome is completely random, this strategy doesn’t work.

"If you are tossing a coin and it turns up heads five times in a row, we have this strong feeling that it will turn up tails on the sixth try," he explained. "But the chances are still exactly 50-50."

Two experiments

Researchers conducted two experiments with students at McMaster to test their theory.

First, participants were asked to observe two targets being illuminated in random sequence. The researchers then gave them money to bet on which target would be illuminated.

Participants maintained the amounts of their bets regardless of whether they won or lost. But in instances where they won, they were more likely to move their bets to the other target for their next wager.

In a second experiment, participants undertook the same test with a partner. Like the first experiment, players maintained the amount of their bets regardless of whether they won or lost. If their partner correctly guessed a target, they were more likely to move on to the next target when their turn came.

Lyons said that strong feeling could be explained by the way evolution has hard-wired our brains.

"If you go hunting in one area, you won't want to go back because presumably there is nothing left," he said.

May help with treatment

The findings may help to explain why some treatment options for problem gamblers often don’t work.

"The results of our work suggest, perhaps for the first time, that certain aspects of problem gambling behaviour may be related to hard-wired, basic neurobiological factors related to how we direct our attention," Lyons said.

Next, the team plans to examine how this sort of behaviour may change as we age, since evidence suggests problem gambling can be particularly acute in the elderly.

However, Lyons cautioned the research is preliminary and can't be used to predict who is more predisposed to developing a gambling problem.

Gambling to expand in Ontario

The research comes as several Ontario cities decide whether to expand gambling through new casinos or the expansion of existing gaming sites. Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp. is looking to add five new casinos in a strategy to modernize gambling in the province.

In Hamilton, city council is still considering the idea of a new casino in the downtown core, or adding more gaming at Flamboro Downs. The discussion has involved available research on problem gambling.

In December 2012, Hamilton's medical officer of health Dr. Elizabeth Richardson presented a report to council that indicated higher concentrations of problem gambling occur in areas surrounding a casino. She also made suggestions about how a casino could mitigate those negative effects, for example by limiting operating hours, among other recommendations.

In the meantime, Flamboro Downs has reached an agreement with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) to continue operating its slots for the foreseeable future.