Radford hosts renowned psychologist

Dr. Thomas Zentall discusses the origins of gambling behavior based on pigeon research.
Thomas Zentall, Ph.D., discusses the origins of gambling behavior based on pigeon research.

Radford University hosted renowned psychologist Thomas Zentall on Sept. 22 in Heth Hall for a discussion regarding the origins of gambling behavior based on pigeon research.

Zentall, a University Research Professor and DiSilvestro Professor of Arts and Sciences at the University of Kentucky, discussed how animal research can be used to discover the underlying processes in human behavior.

“[This research] is investigating the role of simpler systems in our complex behavior,” Zentall said. “We view human behavior as highly complex and it may involve unconscious, social and cultural behaviors. If we can find similar behaviors in animals, then maybe there are simpler mechanisms underlying what we view as complex behavior.”

The research has allowed Zentall and other researchers to determine that pigeons will accept a gamble to possibly get more food even if not gambling would get them more food.

Stirling Barfield, an assistant professor of Psychology at Radford, said that “it was interesting to hear the results of Dr. Zentall's research with pigeons.”

“As a counseling psychologist, I'm curious to see how we can expand on these findings to further investigate methods of intervention and resources for clients who are dealing with gambling-related issues,” she said.  

Pam Jackson, professor of Psychology, said that the students benefited from hearing first-hand about this kind of research.

“[Similar research] makes up the comparative cognition component of my research in Psychology course,” Jackson said. “Basic research with animals can often inform us about how to deal with similar human problems. For example, Zentall has found that pigeons that are exposed to enriched environments will tend to gamble less than normally housed pigeons. Thus, getting problem gamblers involved in other activities may reduce their need to gamble. Also, similar to humans, hungrier pigeons gamble more and thus receive less food or reward.”

“Part of it is critical analysis, thinking in an alternative way about the behavior in question,” Zentall said. “People think of gambling as fun. Animals typically wouldn’t because you are asking them to work for food and they are hungry. If they gamble, it is presumably to get more food. But by gambling, they are getting less food, which is paradoxical.”

“But they do it reliably and we are trying to understand why they do,” Zentall continued. “[People] suffer from the same problem, such as being attracted to a lottery ticket. We think we could make a huge amount of money when objectively we know that the probability of winning is very small. We are very likely going to lose money [when we gamble].”

Just like people, pigeons are attracted by the magnitude of the payoff and do not take into account the low probability of winning. Zentall explained that animals are attracted to stimuli when they are able to predict receiving food. These predictors do not frequently occur, however.

“It isn’t a good bet to say that I’m hoping this thing will occur when it almost never does, like payoff on gambling versus something that pays off reliably, but the reward isn’t as high,” Zentall said. “Animals are attracted to that high payoff, just as humans are.”

Oct 9, 2017
Max Esterhuizen