Research into pathological gambling with the help of pigeons

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Since the Second World War a lot of research has been done into the background of gambling behavior. Conditioning was regularly examined. Recently, such research has shown that the slot machine is the most addictive.


Conditioning description 1557

Conditioning of camels described by Leo Africanus in 1557 (translation from 1665)

Conditioning is by making conditions (conditions) dependent on something or someone. The best known example is Pavlov's dog, where we speak of the Pavlov reaction. The Russian psychologist Igor Pavlov was the first to name the conditioning phenomenon. Hundreds of years ago it was known that it worked.

In 1938 the American psychologist introduced B.F. Skinner the term operant conditioning. That was two years after the death of the Russian Igor Pavlov.

Difference conditioning and operant conditioning

With normal conditioning, someone connects two conditions (incentives) with each other. Pavlov's dog was given food (condition 1) if a bell rang (condition 2). After a short while the water ran into the dog's mouth when he heard the bell. Condition 2 was associated with condition 1 by the dog, without necessarily receiving food afterwards.

Operant conditioning works with reward and punishment. With this a person or animal connects an action with something nice or something unpleasant. A reward ensures that someone carries out the action more often afterwards; a penalty reduces the act.

Research with pigeons

Skinner did his research with pigeons. They were given food (reward) when they tapped a slice (action). That did not always happen, the food came in a random (random) number of times in their food bowl. Sometimes, sometimes not. However, the pigeons knew that if they ticked often enough, food would eventually come.

After Skinner, there have been many who did similar research; Skinner itself too. A few researchers from different universities recently did this again with pigeons. The researchers wondered, for example, how and why some people sit at a slot machine for hours at a time, and keep playing while losing on balance.

Impulsivity of pigeons

fruit tomato the most addictive - gambling pigeonJennifer Laude and her colleagues from the University of Kentucky used pigeons to look at impulsivity. In their research they let pigeons choose from two options: a low chance of 10 pieces of food and a 100% chance of 3 pieces. The pigeons usually chose the bad chance.

The researchers wondered whether choosing the bad chance had to do with impulsiveness. They continued the investigation with a classic from psychology: the deferred reward. It is the choice between directly the chance of a small reward or always a large reward later. The time that someone can wait for the big reward determines the degree of impulsiveness. Waiting longer means less impulsive.

Most pigeons were mainly impulsive. They would rather choose a bit of food straight away than much food for which they had to wait 20 seconds. In the research with pigeons, this led to the conclusion that the pigeons attach more value to possible winning than to an optimal chance of winning. It seemed that pigeons did not even consider the better chance.

According to the researchers, it is a phenomenon that they also observe problem gamblers. They do not consider their losses and continue to play, hunting for a rare win. In psychology, this is called a disorder in impulse control, a so-called compulsive disorder.

Brain research gambling on a fruit machine

In another study, some scientists from New Zealand and Germany looked at brain cells in the prefrontal cortex when gambling on a slot machine. The prefrontal cortex is involved in making decisions, plans and the impulse control referred to above.

This research was also done with pigeons. A room was built with black walls. It contained a computer monitor with a transparent touch screen to record the reactions of the pigeons. A program was running on the computer that looked like a fruit machine with four pictures in a row. Even the lever was included as a function.


The researchers discovered that four types of neurons were active in their slot-type experiment. For a type of neurons, the activity went straight up when the chance of reward seemed to come closer. Other neurons "fired" at a four in a row (four of a kind).

Slot machine the most addictive (people and pigeons brains)

Human brain and bird brain (dark area is PFC and NCL respectively)

And finally there were neurons who changed their activity when it became clear that there was no reward. Important for the research was that the previous results played a role in the latter type of neurons. That confirms earlier scientific research into gambling behavior. The results also show the corresponding function of the prefrontal cortex of humans and other primates and the NCL (coudolateral nidopallium) of birds.

Is the slot machine really that addictive?

In many messages with the title "fruit machine the most addictive" (or similar), people often incorrectly refer to the aforementioned studies. This may be due to the latter study because the researchers start the summary of their report with roughly the statement that the slot machine is the most addictive. But they do not return to this in the report.

The word addictive and similar words appear only a few times in both reports. But nowhere do the researchers conclude that the slot machine is the most addictive. That of course does not mean that that conclusion should not be drawn.

Experiment and reality

The researchers from the second study do explain why their fruit machine experiment with pigeons differs little from a slot machine in the casino environment. Gambling with a slot machine is so simple and requires so little brain activity, according to them, that even pigeons can do it. However, a difference between a gambler and a pigeon is that the pigeon shows no irrational behavior. And there was nothing at stake for the pigeons. That is the case with the gambler. After all, in most cases he or she goes home with less money than when he came to the casino.

Skinner commented on this in his book "Science and Human Behavior" that a gambler at a slot machine does not make a difference. In most cases, the gambler still plays on. Not stimulated by monetary gain, but by something else, for example dopamine. So it was probably Skinner who knew years ago that the slot machine is the most addictive.


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