Gambling and Variable-Ratio Reinforcement Schedule

In operant conditioning, there is a process referred to as “reinforcement schedules.” Reinforcement schedules refer to the two types of reinforcement deliveries, which are continuous reinforcement and partial reinforcement. Partial reinforcement is further divided into four schedules as follows:

Fixed-ratio schedule

Fixed-interval schedule

Variable-ratio schedule, and

Variable-interval schedule

Variable-ratio schedule involves the reinforcement of behavior after an unpredictable number of responses have been made. This is exactly what happens in the process of gambling. Since reinforcements occur after an unpredictable number of tries, it can be said that they occur at a random. These random rewards prove to be far stronger than a continuous reward. Consider this example: Patricia is considered to be a smart and thrifty woman, generally. She visits Las Vegas for the first time. Despite not being a gambler, her curiosity is piqued when she spots a slot machine, therefore, she puts in a quarter followed by another, and then another. Nothing happens during the initial tries. She is close to giving up after she has put in two dollars as her curiosity fades. Just then, something she does not expect happens. The slot machine lights up, bells start to go off, and Patricia gets 50 quarters back! The thrill of this reward renews her interest, and she decides to use all her gains in the hope of winning more money. Perhaps $50 or even $100. Before she knows it, she has used up all her gains and a further $10 from her own pocket. Regardless, she does not quit as the hope of winning big the next time keeps growing. This is the reason why gambling tends to be so addictive. Apart from the operant conditioning, it can also be explained neurologically. Gambling has been found to work the same way as addictive drugs do, in that, it activates the same reward pathways as these drugs. This is the reason why gambling addiction is a widespread problem in the USA, as people tend to incur losses and even go into debt.

Gambling Problem

Gambling addiction is considered to be a widespread problem in the USA. Approximately 15 million adults are at risk of developing the gambling problem, while 3 million people are considered to problem gamblers and 2.5 million falls under the category of pathological gamblers. As per the BBC, those addicted to gambling spend too much money as well as time on gambling because they tend to view these activities as being an opportunity to win big, rather than being reasonable enough to stop after not being rewarded for a considerable number of tries. The thrill of the random reward/reinforcement can create an altered psychological state of mind which might be addictive.

Apart from the above, casinos also employ every trick to attract customers and keep them involved in gambling activities. For instance, casinos offer free drinks or cheap buffet meals, provide chips and vouchers in exchange for the money to spend at the casinos, and so on and forth.

Before people know it, they have lost more than they have gained. The hope for winning big from a small amount of money destroys any reason.

Dealing with a Gambling Problem
Not all gamblers are problem gamblers or pathological gamblers, some tend to be recreational gamblers. However, as per statistics, gambling addiction is a widespread problem in the USA and in many other countries across the globe. Therefore, it needs to be addressed. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been proven to be vastly useful in treating a gambling problem. It helps in employing a higher degree of reasoning wherein one pauses to think why they are doing this, and what could they do to bring about a change in their behavior. Then, the individual is encouraged to step away from destructive behavior and find other healthy pathways to deal with the behavior.

Dealing with a gambling problem or addiction is easier said than done. However, with time and resilience, one can surely overcome it.


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