Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off one whole year of Unlimited learning. Subscribe for just £249.99 £174.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more

Gambling pigeons

Gambling pigeons
Gambling is the practice of risking money or other stakes in a game or bet. This can be fun of course. but if it becomes compulsive or involves significant loss of money it is considered an addiction. Gambling addiction is harmful to both psychological and physical health. People who live with this problem may experience depression, migraine, distress, and other anxiety-related problems The question is Why can’t pathological gamblers stop their compulsive behaviour? To answer this question, we need to go back to animal studies on basic (but robust) mechanism of learning. As we’ve seen before, humans and animals tend to reproduce a given behavior if the outcome is positive For instance, if they receive a positive reward such as food …
or money in our society. When our behavior is always a rewarded we call it “continuous reinforcement” Definitely, we will do this behaviour again! However, we also reinforce our behavior if a reward is not provided continuously. When the reward is delivered after some behaviors or responses, but never after each one we call it “intermittent reinforcement” Intermittent reinforcement has been deeply investigated by comparative psychologist. Originally, Scientists investigated this issue with rats. In a pioneering study, subjects had to learn to press a bar in two different conditions One with continuous reinforcement where food is provided after any correct response The other with the 50% reinforcement, where they receive food only half of the time.
Both groups underwent successive extinction periods that is for a while no food is provided after any response! Animals trained under 50% or intermittent reinforcement were found to be more resistant to extinction than those trained under 100% reinforcement. What does it mean? There were less inclined to “forget” the association between the behavior and the reward Therefore they were tempted to press the bar more often than rats who had previously received a reward each time. This issue has then been widely investigated in pigeons one of the most important models for psychologists in the study of learning mechanisms. Also for pigeons, intermittent reinforcement produces robust responses that are significantly more resistant to extinction than when continuous reinforcement is used.
If you look at these graphs, we can see that a pigeon that only receive rewards intermittently needs hundreds of trials to completely forget the association between a given behavioral response and the reward. On the other hand, those who receive rewards constantly can rapidly extinguish their behavior if the reward is no longer applied. This as a potential ecological explanation. In nature, you may find the source of potential prey, but this is rarely a 100% reliable source of prey. Instead, it is a source that is likely to provide prey. They don’t always live in the same area and if you attack them the possibility exists that most of them will avoid living in the same area for awhile.
In sum, the natural environment is not constant and predictable. Therefore, our natural mechanisms of learning try to grasp regularities from the environment in terms of probabilities. This is the type of learning needed in nature to optimize the chances of eating. For example, if I do it do I have any chance to find prey like I had last week? Natural selection must have shaped our learning mechanisms to be more susceptible to this type of learning.
But get this: Other experiments showed that under certain conditions pigeons may peck at a higher rate on a key that produces intermittent reinforcement than on one that always produces reinforcement! Not only is this behavior difficult to be extinguished, but it is also exhibited more often than when reward is always received! Gambling is an example in everyday life of intermittent reinforcement You don’t win every time when using a slot machine. When the gambler’s bet is not rewarded the gambler continues to bet, expecting that another win will follow sooner or later.
Probably if the gambler had been rewarded for every bet it would take fewer losses for the gambler to disassociate betting with winning and for the act of gambling to be extinguished. Casinos and sport betting companies take advantage of an intermittent and unpredictable reinforcement schedule in order to keep the gamblers gambling as long as possible. Skinner himself stated in 1953 “If the gambling establishment cannot persuade a patron to turn over money with no return it may achieve the same effect by returning part of the patron’s money on a intermittent-reinforcement schedule.” Oh, don’t believe that this stuff occurs only to pathological gamblers!
Have you ever wondered why you often fall in love with a rude guy/girl who seems to be unpredictable and pampers you only sometimes (and not always)? “Unpredictable.. sometimes ” Well, this looks like an intermittent reinforcement schedule. The truth is that we are literally at the mercy of this learning mechanism! And for the scientific demonstration of this phenomenon … We need to thank the pigeons !

In this video, we’re going to consult with rats and pigeons.

We’ll ask for their help to shed light on the power of punishments on choice behaviours, and how they’re actually three times more potent than rewards!

Happy watching!

This article is from the free online

Research Methods in Psychology: Using Animal Models to Understand Human Behaviour

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now