News Stories

The Evolution of Gambling

The history of life on Earth is still a mystery: Bacteria have been around for about 3 billion years, but for most of this time they had had the Earth to themselves. Seaweed, jellyfish-like creatures, sponges and worms arrived a few million years before the Cambrian period began, over 500 million years ago.

But 200 million years ago, higher forms of life suddenly arrived: arthropods, brachiopods, coelenterates, echinoderms, mollusks and even chordates, the animal group from which vertebrates like us developed. Each of these evolutionary changes can be coordinated with a period in which the amount of oxygen in the ocean rose. Each of these oxidation events corresponds with an increase in the size, complexity and diversity of life, both plant and animal.

And we haven't stopped evolving yet: New research suggests that evolution, or basic survival techniques adapted by early humans, influences the decisions gamblers make when placing bets today.

It all has to do with how gamblers make decisions after they have either won or lost. These findings may help to explain why some treatment options for problem gamblers often don't work.

Like our ancestors, gamblers rely on past experiences to predict what might happen in the future. But in games of chance where the outcome is completely random, this strategy doesn't work.

Psychologist Dan Weeks says, "Humans make rational decisions on a day-to-day basis based on experience. Think about someone picking apples in an orchard. Once the apples from the first tree are picked, it is a rational decision to move on to the next tree."

But when it comes to gambling, that kind of rationality doesn't work. It's all down to numbers: Researcher Jim Lyons says, "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. But the chances are still exactly 50-50."

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