You Will Never Win

 I’m talking about slot machines with Luke Clark, an associate professor in psychology at UBC. How slots and other gambling games work-how they grip the imagination and, in some cases, contribute to addiction-is his central professional inquiry, having arrived from Cambridge just this summer to head up the university’s new Centre for Gambling Research. Clark brings a youthful intensity to this project, his manner precise and statements exact, as if he were well aware that talking and writing about gambling has a way of bringing out the sensational.

Our conversation is ironically situated. We’re in an airy boardroom in the Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability, considered one of the most sustainable buildings in the world: a net producer of energy that recycles all its wastewater on-site using a manmade swamp that lives in a greenhouse just off the lobby. Yet four floors up, overlooking a vast parking lot, we’re talking about how people get hooked on one of the least sustainable sources of entertainment: putting coins into a machine that solemnly promises to take away every one of them.

“I’m interested in how people make decisions,” says Clark, who came to Canada because gambling research is more advanced here than anywhere else. “But I’m also interested in how these processes are affected by cognitive distortion.”

What Clark is researching, in other words, is how messed-up our decision-making can be when we gamble, resulting in all kinds of irrational behaviour even in healthy people and contributing to addiction and real self-harm in some. In pulling together his research he uses brain-imaging technology and works with large populations of problem gamblers in the U.K. and Canada. And if you gamble, as I must confess I do at the poker table from time to time, it’s a bit unnerving to hear how reliably our brains fail us in these pursuits.

Consider “gambler’s fallacy,” the grandfather of all cognitive distortions that seize us at the gaming tables. You may have done this yourself, watching someone toss a coin and turn up five heads in a row. Time to bet on tails? Maybe. But if you’re acting rationally, those five heads are irrelevant to that decision. What plays out in these cases is a miscalculation of our own agency. Clark refers to it as “the illusion of control,” where we consistently overestimate the meaningfulness of our own decisions in gaming environments that are governed entirely by preset probabilities. It’s a costly illusion when money is in play. Facing a well-designed game-such as those computerized slot and roulette machines that 40 percent of U.K. problem gamblers cite as favourites-the player is encouraged to feel in charge of a series of events that only ever had one remotely likely outcome.

“So does that explain why I was up playing poker until 2:30 in the morning last Saturday when I’d planned to be in bed by midnight?” I ask rhetorically.

Clark smiles politely. “Loss chasing,” as they call it, is in fact one of the leading indicators of problem gambling. “Especially when people return the next day to the same establishment to win back what they lost the day before.”

But I was winning. Perhaps I had reached that Zen-like constellation of cognitive dislocation in which I imagine myself to be in control of a game that is, in reality, always playing me.