Casino lights and sounds encourage risky decision-making

Mature woman playing a slot machine game in a casino.

Are the blinking lights and exciting jingles ubiquitous on the casino floor just a little bit of harmless ambience-building razzle dazzle, or could they affect your choices and actions when you gamble with slot machines? New research demonstrates that the sights and sounds of the casino may directly influence decision-making and behaviour, encouraging riskier choices.

Prompted by research demonstrating that rats were more willing to take risks when their food rewards were accompanied by flashing lights and jingles, Dr. Catharine A. Winstanley, postdoctoral fellow Dr. Mariya V. Cherkasova, and colleagues at the University of British Columbia (UBC) examined whether this would also be the case among human participants engaged in laboratory decision making games in which money rewards were accompanied by sensory feedback modeled after the “bells and whistles” used to signal winning outcomes in gaming products such as slot machines.

According to the results of their study, which was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and involved more than 100 healthy adults, the intense audiovisual feedback similar to that used in slot machines can directly influence an individual’s decisions. The findings, published today in JNeurosci, the journal from the Society for Neuroscience, suggest that sensory features in casinos can encourage riskier choices and raise new concerns that these features may promote problematic 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 the game,” explained Dr. Cherkasova. “Overall people took more risks when playing the more casino-like games, regardless of the odds.”

“We saw 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 Dr. Winstanley, a Professor in the Department of Psychology at UBC 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.”

In the absence of sensory cues, participants demonstrated more restraint in their decision-making. However, for those with a tendency toward gambling addiction, these findings provide context for why it can be hard 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 Dr. Cherkasova.

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