Spiderman and the Gambler’s Fallacy

October 11, 2015 by Martha’s Dad

cigarette-6768520It’s one of those inventions where, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s hard to work out how anyone ever thought it was a good idea.  A cigarette machine in which, on inserting the necessary coinage, users were invited to either buy the cigarettes they’d selected or, alternatively, gamble for the chance to win even more of them – and the question was asked by none other than our favourite spinach-eating sailor, Popeye!

So as if connecting cigarettes to a cartoon character adored by children wasn’t bad enough, the manufacturers of this little gem (pictured left) thought they’d throw in another potentially addictive behaviour, gambling, for good measure.  Couldn’t happen today… could it?  Well, it’s only ten years ago, while teaching in one major city, I was regularly given miniature figures of cartoon characters free with my cigarettes, a promotion designed to tie-in with the latest grand opening of a certain theme park franchise.  Hard to know which posed the biggest risk to children, the association with smoking or the danger of choking on one of the ridiculously under-sized models! Even so, hard to imagine that particular marketing tactic being used today.

It only takes a very brief visit to an amusement arcade or casino today, however, to see that TV and movie tie-ins, including to superheroes adored by children and adults alike, still figure prominently in the themes adorning a vast array of gaming machines (often well-named as ‘bandits’, of course, as the odds of winning are stacked against us!).  But, should we be worried about this?

A new study by Paul Rivo and his colleagues in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests we should at least be a little cautious in our approach to this form of branding on gaming machines.  In a serious of innovative experiments exploring our responses to different game formats, the authors found that we tend to play machines longer when the machine itself displays a degree of anthropomorphism; e.g. associating the game with Spiderman or even structuring it so we appear to be playing against the cob-webbed crusader.  The effect of Spiderman’s presence wasn’t massive, but it persisted even when the game was distanced from actual cash wins in some way (e.g. playing for tokens or candy).  And of course, as psychologists have long known, prolonging play increases the risk of addiction in those vulnerable to it, so there is a potential here for the current anthropomorphic fashion to inadvertently result in a greater propensity toward compulsive gaming.  A very interesting set of experiments, but given the magnitude of the effects Rivo et al report, more research is clearly needed to understand this phenomenon further.

What is also fascinating in this study, though only really touched on in paper itself, is the apparent increased effect in particular decision-making heuristics and biases often also implicated in compulsive gambling.  Sunk-cost bias (seeing each loss as simply an investment in the ‘inevitable’ future big win) is very much in evidence, for instance, as is the perhaps inevitable gambler’s fallacy (every small win is seen as growing evidence that the gambler’s ‘skill’ is improving, ignoring each game’s statistical independence).  These particular aspects of the research are definitely worthy of further study, I think, as we know relatively little about the degree to which our judgment errors and decision biases may be amplified (or even triggered) by anthropomorphism.

Mmmnnn… I feel an experiment coming on…  Wonder if I can find a Dalek-themed gaming machine anywhere?