Don’t get too distracted by the flashing lights when making a big decision.
Gambling and shopping have a lot in common. They stimulate dopamine receptors in the brain among gamblers and shoppers, scientific studies have shown. Both casinos and department stores use lighting and music to lure people into spending more time there, and constantly give them positive reinforcements. The subliminal message: This is a place that rewards you (in the case of casinos) and makes you feel happy and comfortable (while you browse department stores).
In the case of casinos, most seasoned gamblers are likely aware that casinos keep things bright so there’s little difference between night and day, which causes people to lose track of time. That’s part of the joy of spending a “lost weekend” in Las Vegas. But new research says other stimulating effects encourage gamblers to take more risks, and also adds to the growing body of research on tactics both casinos and retailers use to get people to spend money.
Lights and exciting jingles at a casino can encourage a gambler to make risky choices, according to a study published earlier this year in The Journal of Neuroscience, a peer-reviewed journal. Such stimulating features can promote problem behavior, researchers from the University of British Columbia found. (Similarly, researchers have found that people shop more when they listen to unfamiliar music, rather than the same Christmas tunes that people often tire off this time of year.)
Casinos and retailers use lighting and music to both excite and relax people.
One hundred adults played laboratory gambling games with “bells and whistles” like the ones that signal winning on slot machines. Researchers found that these sensory cues can stimulate negative behavior — like continuing to play a game even when the risk of losing was high. “Overall, people took more risks when playing the more casino-like games, regardless of the odds,” said Mariya Cherkasova, University of British Columbia postdoctoral research fellow and the study’s lead author.
Eye-tracker technology showed gamblers paid less attention to the actual odds of winning when they were distracted by pictures of money and musical beeps and tones. The gamblers’ pupils dilated more widely under these conditions, suggesting they were aroused by them. Without the bells and whistles, gamblers showed more restraint. The results could explain “why some people persist in gambling despite unfavorable odds of winning,” Cherkasova said.
It can work in favor of the consumer, however. Slot machines’ exuberant lights and music can lead players into thinking they’ve won, when actually they’ve lost. But when players are educated about how the machines mislead them, they’re less susceptible to being tricked, a previous study found. So the ordinary gamblers won’t always be fooled by the razzmatazz of casino life and, thus, the same may be true for retailers.
Retailers also use tricks to get people so spend money
A similar phenomenon sometimes plays out in stores. Music is used to either keep people moving briskly through the store or to slow them down, depending on how busy they are, according to an analysis of big supermarkets by Casino.org. (They use other tricks too, like providing no free shelf space at the checkout, leaving no room to dump unwanted items.)
Our sense of smell also helps us to part with our hard-earned money.
Our sense of smell also helps companies get us to part with our hard-earned money. A whoosh of warm air, a soft carpet, perfumed air and pleasant music make many shoppers feel at home, but new research has a theory why certain scents encourage people to open their wallets.
The research, “The Cool Scent of Power: Effects of Ambient Scent on Consumer Preferences and Choice Behavior,” published in the January 2014 Journal of Marketing, carried out three laboratory and two store-based experiments. The researchers demonstrated that people spend more when they are in an environment with “warm scents” such as vanilla or cinnamon (as opposed to “cool scents” such as peppermint).
Some gamblers have bigger problems than flashing lights
While gambling and shopping can become addictive, gambling addiction is a particularly complicated problem and often has often has nothing to do with the lights and sounds in casinos, said Christine Reilly, senior research director at the National Center for Responsible Gaming, a nonprofit funded by in part by casinos that’s dedicated to scientific research into gambling disorders and their prevention.
“It’s not just automatic that when lights and sounds turn on someone becomes a gambling addict,” she said. “It may aggravate the conditions for some people but you have to remember most people who have the disorder have other economic, social, and mental health problems.” Gambling rewires the brain in a similar fashion to addictive drugs, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which classified pathological gambling as an impulse-control disorder.
Shopping and gambling addiction goes far behind sounds and music.
Like hard drugs, gambling causes the brain to release the chemical messenger dopamine, which gives humans a wave of satisfaction and happiness. Eventually the brain, exposed to frequent dopamine-stimulating chemicals, evolves to emit less dopamine on its own. The drug addict slowly builds up a tolerance to the habit, needing more to feel high. Gambling works in a similar way, according to the 2012 book “Addiction by Design,” by MIT professor Natasha Schull.
Shopping addiction has also been recognized as a prevalent mental health disorder. “Compulsive buying disorder is characterized by excessive shopping cognitions and buying behavior that leads to distress or impairment,” according to World Psychiatry, the official journal of the World Psychiatric Association. “The e disorder has a lifetime prevalence of 5.8% in the U.S. general population.” Reilly said people should always be mindful of their spending habits. “What you have to remember is people get into trouble with all kinds of games, not just casinos,” she said.
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