Monday, September 8, 2014

I’ll Wager That You Bet On Football, Or Maybe Football

Opera diva Renee Fleming (left) sang the national anthem
at the 2014 Super Bowl. Millions of dollars were
wagered on just how long it would take her to get through
the Star Spangled Banner. Pop star Kelly Clarkson (top) took
only 1:34, so the smart bettors went with a longer time for
an opera singer. The over/under was 2:25, but she came in
a solid 35 seconds under that line. Alicia Keys (bottom), on
the other hand, took almost three minutes!
It’s fall again. The NFL season just began and across the pond the English Premier League soccer season has a few games under its belt. You know what that means – lots and lots of gambling.

Between American football and football proper, literally trillions of dollars are wagered each year. And that just counts the games, not the fantasy leagues. For all the readers in the US - yes there are indeed fantasy leagues for the English Premier League.

Each sport is the top betting sport in its respective country, unless you count the massive gamble that NBC took signing a contract to show the EPL in the United States. You can bet on just about anything that concerns the games; who'll get hurt, who'll score first, even the coin toss. In 2014, betting on the Super Bowl surpassed 100 million dollars, and only 42% of that was bet on who would actually win the game!

About 4% of those people who bet on at least a semi-regular basis will go on to develop a gambling addiction, or a “pathologic gambling” problem. There have been lots of study in recent years as to why people gamble, and why only some people develop an addiction. As with most things, it comes down to which is the chicken and which is the egg.

A recent study in Thai students showed that 20% of teenagers gambled, mostly on cards, but only slightly less popular was football (soccer). Ten percent of those who gambled were considered to be addicted. Since only 4% of adults become addicted, does this mean that children are more susceptible? Maybe, but it could be other things as well.

The authors found a strong negative correlation between education and gambling. As GPA went down or the level of education stayed low, the chance of pathologic gambling went up. But which is the cart and which is the horse? Do people with poor grades or education have more chance to become problem gamblers, or does problem gambling lead to poor grades?

More betting on World Cup and other football games has led
to an increase in Chinese, Russian, and North Vietnamese
hacking syndicates that prey on gamblers. Match fixing is also
becoming a big problem as more criminal enterprises try to
make a killing on the beautiful game.
The take home lesson, beyond that Thai kids apparently have too much spending money, is that correlation does not imply causation. Just because two things occur together, it doesn’t mean that the first causes the second or that the second causes the first. One or the other might be causative, but it doesn’t follow that one must cause the other.

So why do they gamble? Is it thrill seeking, for potential monetary gain, for social reasons? There may be as many reasons for gambling as there are gamblers, but some common issues crop up in pathologic gamblers.

Two terms used in the study of gambling are “illusion of control” and “near miss.” These seem to be especially important in football and football. Illusion of control is the feeling that knowing more about the game and being up on the latest data and statistics make a tangible difference in the outcomes of wagers. It ain’t so.

A couple of recent studies give us evidence to the futility of extensive studying. A 2012 study compared the result of choosing 10 soccer games. Professional football gamblers were compared to people who knew nothing about the game and to amateurs who followed the game casually. They all succeeded at comparable rates – knowing more about the game made no difference whatsoever.

This result was supported by a 2013 study that picked the round of 16 games in the European Champions League. Again, people who were ignorant of the game bet just as successfully as the pros. Nevertheless, pathologic gamblers do seem to believe that they have more control over the outcome of wagers, and this is one of the justifications they use to continue. The more they continue to study and bet, the more likely they will develop a problem.

A recent series of experiments shows that it is more complicated than this, at least for football (or football). Gamblers of many ages and betting frequency range were queried as to whether they believed in their luck or their skill for gambling. For football, frequency of betting related more to a belief in luck than their image of themselves as “in the know.” The results were different for casino games, where a sense of skill led to more frequent betting. So football betting isn't always about thinking you have an information edge.

These are MRI scans of the brain while betting on a slot
machine. The left image is a scan of the reward center activity
in a win, but they have subtracted the activity that occurs with
a loss. On the right, the signal during a win was subtracted
from the signal in a near miss situation. There is actually more
activity in a near miss than in an actual win! No wonder
people get hooked on betting.
The “near miss” is more interesting. Having your team lose by one point, or on a fluke play (something like the Fail Mary in the Seahawks/Packers game of 2012) is excruciating – but it's also more exciting, especially for pathologic gamblers. The feeling of excitement and payoff is bigger in these games than even in games that they might win.

In the above study, rats who were trained to press a lever for food after a random press light three lights, pressed the food bar just as often when only two lights were lit – even though pressing it for a non-win (three lights was a win) induced a time penalty during which they couldn’t play again. They knew it would bring a penalty, but the near miss still had some irresistable appeal for the brain’s reward center.

It’s a dopamine thing. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that has a lot to do with reward – things that give our brains pleasure. About ten years ago, scientists noticed that people that were started on medicine for Parkinson’s disease (a disease in which motor coordination is impaired due to the loss of dopamine producing neurons in the substantia nigra of the brain) developed gambling addictions at much higher rates than the general population.

Dopamine works in different ways for different parts of the brain. When treating the basal ganglia (BG) that controls muscle movements with dopamine (the dopamine in the BG is low in Parkinson's), you are also increasing the dopamine levels in other parts of the brain. It isn't the treatment of the tremor that causes people to gamble, it's the inadvertent actions of the dopamine on some other part of the brain that leads to gambling problems.

For example, the “near miss” releases just as much dopamine in the reward centers of the brain as does a win and correlates highly with development of gambling addiction. Does too little dopamine mean that they have to gamble more than other people in order to get the same effect, and this is exacerbated by dopamine containing medicines? Maybe. Pathologic gamblers do seem to release more dopamine in the mesolimbic area of the brain (motivation control) when gambling than do healthy control subjects.

This cartoon illustrates just how difficult it is to prove a causal
relationship between dopamine and pathologic gambling. The
different areas of the brain use different combinations of
dopamine receptors, and these can change with disease or
trauma. Each are will react differently to too much or too little
dopamine, or to changes in other neurotransmitters that affect
dopamine activity or release. But scientists are good at isolating
variables, I bet we get it sooner rather than later.
However, a 2013 study showed that the motivational area dopamine areas had more dopamine when the reward (winning the bet) was uncertain as opposed to after it was won. This leads to the idea that there is more of a thrill in uncertainty and is itself the reward. When dopamine drugs enter the brain indiscriminately, these feelings are exacerbated, and more gambling is needed to keep the reward (pleasurable feeling) going.

Unfortunately, it's much more complicated than this. There are different types of receptors for dopamine on the different types of neurons. Too much or too little dopamine can over time change the number and types of dopamine receptors found on the neurons, so dopamine activity in a healthy brain isn’t exactly the same as dopamine activity on a previously dopamine starved brain. This is exemplified by a case report in 2013 of a patient who quickly developed a strong and uncontrolled gambling problem after beginning drugs to lower the dopamine levels in his brain.

So once again, we see that just correlating dopamine levels with gambling on football (or anything else) isn’t enough to say that it causes the gambling addiction. We know dopamine is playing a role, but is it too little or too much that leads to gambling addiction? Your bet is as good as mine.

contributed by
Mark E. Lasbury, MS, MSEd, PhD
As Many Exceptions As Rules

Anselme P, & Robinson MJ (2013). What motivates gambling behavior? Insight into dopamine's role. Frontiers in behavioral neuroscience, 7 PMID: 24348355

Huberfeld R, Gersner R, Rosenberg O, Kotler M, & Dannon PN (2013). Football gambling three arm-controlled study: gamblers, amateurs and laypersons. Psychopathology, 46 (1), 28-33 PMID: 22890307

Khazaal Y, Chatton A, Billieux J, Bizzini L, Monney G, Fresard E, Thorens G, Bondolfi G, El-Guebaly N, Zullino D, & Khan R (2012). Effects of expertise on football betting. Substance abuse treatment, prevention, and policy, 7 PMID: 22578101

Zhou K, Tang H, Sun Y, Huang GH, Rao LL, Liang ZY, & Li S (2012). Belief in luck or in skill: which locks people into gambling? Journal of gambling studies / co-sponsored by the National Council on Problem Gambling and Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming, 28 (3), 379-91 PMID: 21894576

Grötsch P, Lange C, Wiesbeck GA, & Lang U (2013). Pathological Gambling Induced by Dopamine Antagonists: A Case Report. Journal of gambling studies / co-sponsored by the National Council on Problem Gambling and Institute for the Study of Gambling and Commercial Gaming PMID: 24356928

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