What Makes Casinos So Addictive?

By Zachary Siegel 01/25/16

The lights, the music, serve to rile us up so we make stupid decisions.

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In a casino, time stops and experience is accelerated. There are no windows or clocks, and oxygen is pumped in to produce a climate of loss and reward, the necessary precursors for addiction. A new study published in the journal Neuroscience found other casino ingredients, mainly flashing lights and loud music, also propel these addictive behaviors.

"I often feel that scientific models are decades behind the casinos. I don't think it's an accident that casinos are filled with lights and noise," said Dr. Catharine Winstanley, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, in a press release.

Scientists at the University of British Columbia are interested in understanding the nature of addictive behavior. Gambling, for some individuals, becomes a compulsive need. To better understand this phenomenon, the researchers built what they called a “rat casino.” Picture a cage with flashing lights and loud music, as well as mini-games that produce random losses and rewards.

For the study, researchers trained rats to play gambling-like games. The rats then had to choose between four reward and punishment options and were then tested for their response with and without lights and loud sounds, according to the press release.

What they found was that rats in the casino were more likely to engage in risky, “gambling-like behavior” when bright lights and loud sounds were present. However, when one particular dopamine receptor was blocked, these behaviors diminished, even in the experimental cage.

The dopamine receptor called D3 has already been implicated in facilitating drug addiction. The current rat casino supports theories that there are indeed biological mechanisms underpinning addictive and compulsive behavior.

"This brain receptor is also really important to drug addiction, so our findings help support the idea that risky behavior across different vices might have a common biological cause," said Michael Barrus, a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia.

Dr. Catharine Winstanley concluded, "Anyone who's ever designed a casino game or played a gambling game will tell you that of course sound and light cues keep you more engaged, but now we can show it scientifically."

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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