Risky business

A new center at UGA studies gambling addiction

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Risky business

Associate Professor Adam Goodie explores the psychology behind pathological gambling.

Photo by: Dorothy Kozlowski

When the Powerball lottery reached its peak in November 2012, the jackpot had rolled over for 16 consecutive weeks before two players, one each in Arizona and Missouri, picked the right numbers: 5, 16, 22, 23, 29 and Powerball 6.

The odds of wining the top prize: 1 in 175,223,510. Still, the slightest possibility of winning was enough to draw out millions to bet $2 per ticket on the big prize. More than 560 million tickets, a record for the Powerball at that time, were sold in 44 states and the District of Columbia.

For many, the tickets likely were a lark—a chance to daydream about the happiness riches could bring. For some, it could have been a first-time buy. Others spend a few dollars weekly on the chance for a payout. But for some, the weekly and bi-weekly games, local lotteries and scratch-off tickets are an irresistible lure, the idea of hitting the jackpot overriding rational thought and leading the player to invest his family’s food money, or a weekly paycheck, for the 1 in 175 million chance of a big payout.

These are the people Adam Goodie wants to know more about. An associate professor of behavioral and brain sciences in the Department of Psychology, Goodie runs the newly established Center for Gambling Research. Working with colleagues in other disciplines, such as social work, business, public health and family and consumer sciences, Goodie hopes to learn more about the addiction to gambling and its impact on families, societies, politics and the economy.

“There’s no such thing as being a skillful lottery player,” Goodie says.

“Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Life is full of uncertainty.”

Goodie has spent his career looking at how people make decisions. At some point he began to look specifically at decision-making and mental illness, focusing on pathological gambling.

“It’s people taking risks, unnecessarily,” he says. “They take too much risk and are insensitive to wins and losses. They don’t notice, or they do notice but think that the big one is right around the corner.”

Goodie’s research shows that people typically are willing to take more risk if they think some level of skill is involved in a game, such as poker or blackjack, that require some strategy. Winning can depend on how much skill you have at playing the game. But there still is risk involved.

“It also depends on how much skill the other people you are playing with have,” he says.

Terry College of Business Associate Professor David Mustard has done a lot of research over the years looking at policy implications of gambling. What has startled him is the magnitude of social problems and crime committed by pathological gamblers, whose numbers are estimated at .5 to 2 percent of the population.

He recalls a story some years ago about a woman in South Carolina who left her child in the car while she played the slot machines. The child died.

“Some of these people have stolen hundreds of thousands of dollars from work,” he says. “The percentage of people is small. But the societal problems they create are dramatic.”

Those societal problems affect everyone, from families and employers of the addicted gambler to the taxpayers who bear the cost of the courts, prisons and social services that are required to address the issues.

The center provides an opportunity for researchers like Mustard and Goodie to look at gambling from a neutral perspective, Mustard says.

Goodie hopes their work will shape policy and help pathological gamblers better understand their chances of winning—and losing.

“Most people don’t become pathological gamblers,” Goodie says. “Some people may have more flawed cognition with regard to the game. We have an opportunity if we can make them think more rationally about some simple facts about probability.”