Casino Lights and Sounds Encourage Risky Decision Making

Summary: A new study reveals sensory cues within a casino may directly influence a player’s decision to make more risky choices.

Source: University of British Columbia.

The blinking lights and exciting jingles in casinos may encourage risky decision-making and potentially promote problem gambling behaviour, suggests new research from the University of British Columbia.

The findings, published today in Journal of Neuroscience, the journal from the Society for Neuroscience, suggest that sensory features in casinos may directly influence a player’s decisions and encourage riskier choices—raising new concerns that these features may promote problem gambling.

“We found that an individual’s choices were less guided by the odds of winning when the casino-like audiovisual features were present in our laboratory gambling game,” said UBC postdoctoral research fellow and the study’s lead author Mariya Cherkasova. “Overall, people took more risks when playing the more casino-like games, regardless of the odds.”

The latest study was prompted by earlier UBC research that found rats were more willing to take risks when their food rewards were accompanied by flashing lights and jingles.

To determine if this would also be the case for humans, researchers had more than 100 adults play laboratory gambling games that featured sensory feedback modelled after the “bells and whistles” used to signal winning in real slot machines. They found money imagery and slot machine sounds can directly influence an individual’s decisions.

“Using eye-tracker technology, we were able to see that people were paying less attention to information about the odds of winning on a particular gamble when money imagery and casino jingles accompanied the wins,” said the study’s senior author Catharine Winstanley, professor in the UBC department of psychology and investigator at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health. “We also noted that participants showed greater pupil dilation, suggesting that individuals were more aroused or engaged when winning outcomes were paired with sensory cues.”

a woman sitting at a slot machine
The latest study was prompted by earlier UBC research that found rats were more willing to take risks when their food rewards were accompanied by flashing lights and jingles. image is in the public domain.

In the absence of sensory cues, the researchers found that participants demonstrated more restraint in their decision-making.

These findings provide context for why it can be hard for those with a tendency toward gambling addiction to resist the lure of the casino.

“Together, these results provide new insight into the role played by audiovisual cues in promoting risky choice, and could in part explain why some people persist in gambling despite unfavourable odds of winning,” said Cherkasova.

“These results form an important piece of the puzzle in terms of our understanding of how gambling addiction forms and persists,” added Winstanley. “While sound and light stimuli may seem harmless, we’re now understanding that these cues may bias attention and encourage risky decision-making.”

About this neuroscience research article

Funding: The study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Source: Thandi Fletcher – University of British Columbia
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is in the public domain.
Video Source: Video credited to UBC.
Original Research: Abstract for “Win-concurrent sensory cues can promote riskier choice” by Mariya V. Cherkasova, Luke Clark, Jason J.S. Barton, Michael Schulzer, Mahsa Shafiee, Alan Kingstone, A. Jon Stoessl and Catharine A. Winstanley in Journal of Neuroscience. Published October 29 2018.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]University of British Columbia”Casino Lights and Sounds Encourage Risky Decision Making.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 29 October 2018.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]University of British Columbia(2018, October 29). Casino Lights and Sounds Encourage Risky Decision Making. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved October 29, 2018 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]University of British Columbia”Casino Lights and Sounds Encourage Risky Decision Making.” (accessed October 29, 2018).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Win-concurrent sensory cues can promote riskier choice

Reward-related stimuli can potently influence behaviour; for example, exposure to drug-paired cues can trigger drug use and relapse in people with addictions. Psychological mechanisms that generate such outcomes likely include cue-induced cravings and attentional biases. Recent animal data suggest another candidate mechanism: reward-paired cues can enhance risky decision making, yet whether this translates to humans is unknown. Here, we examined whether sensory reward-paired cues alter decision making under uncertainty and risk, as measured respectively by the Iowa Gambling Task and a two-choice lottery task. In the cued version of both tasks, gain feedback was augmented with reward-concurrent audiovisual stimuli. Healthy human volunteers (53 males, 78 females) performed each task once, one with and the other without cues (cued IGT/uncued VGT: n = 63; uncued IGT/cued VGT: n = 68), with concurrent eye-tracking. Reward-paired cues did not affect choice on the Iowa Gambling Task. On the two-choice lottery task, the cued group displayed riskier choice and reduced sensitivity to probability information. The cued condition was associated with reduced eye fixations on probability information shown on the screen and greater pupil dilation related to decision and reward anticipation. This pupil effect was unrelated to the risk-promoting effects of cues: the degree of pupil dilation for risky versus risk-averse choices did not differ as a function of cues. Taken together, our data show that sensory reward cues can promote riskier decisions and have additional and distinct effects on arousal.

Animal data suggest that reward-paired cues can promote maladaptive reward-seeking by biasing cost-benefit decision making. Whether this finding translates to humans is unknown. We examined the effects of salient reward-paired audio-visual cues on decision making under risk and uncertainty in human volunteers. Cues had risk-promoting effects on a risky choice task and independently increased task-related arousal as measured by pupil dilation. By demonstrating risk-promoting effects of cues in human participants, our data identify a mechanism whereby cue reactivity could translate into maladaptive behavioural outcomes in people with addictions.

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