Monkeys Love To Gamble! Blanchard’s study demonstrate that the hot-hand bias whereby we see patterns where none exist is common to both human and primates evolutionary history.
Introduction to Monkey Gambling Experiment:
Humans have a tendency to look for and rationalize patterns when none in fact exist. Even when the data shows that events are completely random, we continue to theorize and attempt to explain away the phenomena with a plausible reason. The reason we do this is because it is easier for our brain to work with similar objects and therefore has a tendency to group them all together. This holds true for grouping tangible objects such as people as well as for grouping ideas or events.
The phenomena of rationalization and the attempt to see correlations in independent events helps explain the human tendency to engage in risky behaviours such as gambling and unsafe sex. Scientists disagree whether this behaviour is a result of our cognitive disposition, in other words we were just born this way, or, is this learned behaviour that has been picked up in childhood.
As humans we engage in this pattern forming behaviour in many everyday instances. Take for example sports games, when we observe a player make a successful shot or goal, we then believe that he is more likely to follow up his success with another goal or basket. In terms of the probability of this happening, one successful outcome has no effect on a future result, each outcome is independent and the player is just as likely to score another goal as he was at the start of the game. Our tendency to perceive a pattern in unrelated events in sports games led to the term, the hot-hand phenomenon.
It turns out that humans are remarkably bad at understanding randomness. This leads us to see patterns where none exist and skewers our ability to make random choices.
To analyse whether out inability to distinguish between random and order is due to environmental factors or whether we were just born this way. Tommy Blanchard a Doctoral candidate at the University of Rochester together with Hayden and Wilke, Psychology professors from Clarkson University, conducted a study using juvenile rhesus monkeys. Their study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition, was to determine whether the monkeys would demonstrate the same biases as those displayed by humans. If the same proclivity towards believing in a winning and losing streak was shared with the monkeys, the researchers could determine that this is a predisposition that is ingrained in our cognitive psychology.
To measure whether monkeys believe in a winning streak, the researchers created a computer game that the monkeys were taught to play. The game had three different screens. In one game two objects appeared on the screen, the monkey could choose one of the objects by simply gazing at it. In one of the games the winning object was on the right side of the screen whilst in the other game, the winning object was on the left side of the screen. If the monkey would gaze at the winning object he would be rewarded with some juice.
The monkeys quickly learned to make smart decisions when presented with these two screens. When a clear pattern existed, the monkey correctly guessed the answer and was rewarded for his correct answer. The third screen however was completely random. This meant that the reward could be either for picking the object on the right side of the screen or the left side of the screen.
When the monkeys were presented with the completely random screen their choices were made as if they expected their winning or losing streak to continue. In other words, even when the outcome was random the monkeys would follow a trend. For example, if you are told to pick between a red and a black card, there is a 50-50 chance that the card you pick will be either red or black. Even if the black card is picked 4 times in a row, on the 5th time the card is just as likely to be black as it is red. Humans, and it turns out monkeys as well, expect to see some form of a pattern so that if the black card appears 4 times in a row it is now the turn of the red card to make an appearance.
The researchers conducted thousands of trials and the monkeys continued to display this bias consistently every single day over weeks of play. The monkeys had plenty of time to get over their bias and to change their results but even with specialized training to teach the monkeys alternative strategies, the monkeys continued to show the same tendency and favour the hot- hand approach.
Blanchard and his colleagues concluded that even when the monkeys were presented with a random distribution of rewards they still acted as if they were expected to find a pattern.
THE HOT-HAND BIAS
The findings of Blanchard’s study demonstrate that the hot-hand bias or phenomena whereby we see patterns where none exist is common to both humans and primates. This commonality infers that evolution has primed our brains to look for patterns even where none occur.
When a monkey hunts for food and finds some plants under a log, he assumes that there must be other similar plants in the area for him to eat, and will continue his search in the same area.
Humans, likewise not only make these same assumptions, they also thrive off and look for opportunities to create patterns. This is why people enjoy filling out crossword and Sudoku puzzles, finding the pattern and creating order helps us feel like we are in control of the event.
The hot-hand bias tendency also helps explain the reason so many people love to engage in risk taking activities such as gambling at an online casino. When we gamble we believe that we can control the end result and make some order from the randomness of the game. It also explains why so many people enjoy playing the stock market, they are always trying to find the pattern believing that if the stock go up one day, they are sure to come down the next. Attempting to make order among chaos is even more of a challenge for some people than others.
UNDERSTANDING THE BIAS
On a personal level, if we understand that our need to find patterns sometimes causes us to build incorrect assumptions and results, we could perhaps spare ourselves the pain of making unwise decisions that are based on previous information, it could help us achieve a less frustrated and happier life.
For EXAMPLE: If we spend time playing online pokies (slots) with the explicit knowledge that the bets we make are based on completely random results, we can enjoy a fun and suspense gaming session. Our time at the casino will not be spent trying to chase a loss or erroneously believing that the very next spin will result in a jackpot due to the fact that we have lost every single game so far. One of the most popular casino tales told involves a roulette table where the ball kept on landing in a black pocket. Soon enough players were swarming to the roulette table and placing enormous bets on the red pockets in the belief that it was now time for the red pocket to declare the winning ball. What ended up happening was that the casino managed to rake in millions of dollars until a red pocket win eventually occurred. Many, many players went home empty handed that night.
Likewise, when it comes to sports games, your team is not earmarked for a win just because they have scored a number of winning goals and therefore must be on a winning streak or on a roll, whilst we hope they do ultimately win, you should enjoy the game knowing that losing is also a strong possibility.
On a larger scale, understanding the hot -hand bias can help us understand and treat compulsive behaviour such as gambling addictions and enable us to help gambling addicts debunk their hardwired notions that their winning break is just around the corner. It may even help predict which players will later develop gambling addictions.
Investors, says Hayden “should keep in mind that humans have an inherited bias to believe that if a stock goes up one day, it will continue to go up”
Blanchard goes even further by suggesting that understanding the bias phenomena can help shed light on our understanding of free will. The biases in our decision making such as those that lead us to believe in a winning or losing streak, explains Blanchard, can help us understand the complex human mind. We like to think of ourselves as being rational human beings making decisions based on concrete information, when in reality we are not always aware of how or why we make certain decisions.
These findings also underscore the importance of the environmental context in which we evolve. The social and physical environment in which both the human and the animals live determines the cognitive messages and consequences that they internalize. If an animal is used to a great deal of order in his everyday life, such as food present in certain areas, he may be more hardwired to believe in logical patterns in other areas of his life. A human who has grown up in a largely random environment may be less likely to adhere as strongly to the hot-hand bias.
THE HUMAN AND THE MONKEY
Whilst we can certainly conclude that the human is a sophisticated being that makes decisions and acts based on a combination of rational statistics and heuristics, we also share some cognitive mechanisms with our primate relatives such as the hot-hand bias.
Despite the fact that human beings are by nature averse to taking risks, the hot-hand bias is valuable in that it helps scientists and psychologists understand that people will sometimes act against their own self interest if a feeling or irrational thought overtakes their logic. When it comes to gambling for example players can often lose large sums of money and therefore act against their own financial best interests.
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The researchers from Clarkson University suggest that this hot-hand bias can be traced back to our evolutionary history when we were hunters and gatherers. A fallen apple on the ground would indicate that there were likely to be other apples nearby and hence an apple tree. This evolved tendency then led to the hot-bias that is still in evidence today. What is interesting about this theory is that however evolved we feel we have become and despite the enormous strides we have made when it comes to technological innovation and inventions, human DNA and that of our fellow primates is overwhelmingly universal and similar.
This humbling fact should also serve as a touching reminder that animals and humans have a shared evolutionary history and continue to share certain behaviours and beliefs. Although many Traditionalists tend to look for evidence that supports the claim that main is unique and more superiorly evolved than our fellow monkeys, the research conducted by Blanchard et al demonstrate that we are in fact fairly similar and share many common attributes with our fellow primates.