Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018


Betfair has made tens of millions of pounds by taking money from losers (literally speaking) like me. But how does Betfair persuade me to lose over and over again, and enjoy it?  

So, why is gambling appealing in the first place? The answer lies in positive reinforcement (Skinner, 1938). Just how a dog repeats a behaviour to receive a treat, a gambler repeats behaviour to receive money. This phenomenon lies in our evolutionary ‘advantageous’ reward circuit. When gambling, dopamine is released creating a positive feeling similar to responses to food, sexual stimuli and even cocaine. But how does a natural neurotransmitter make people love betting on horses? This is because addictive gamblers have a hypersensitivity to rewards and so feel even better than most when their bet comes through (Hewig, 2010). On top of that, addicts show the same activity when only almost winning (Oberg et al, 2011). This leads to persistence and vigour in the behaviour as they love to play even if they are not winning.

Another reason gambling can be so addictive is because it creates a variable schedule of reinforcement (SOR) as rewards occur on a random, unpredictable basis (Pryor, 1985). Consequently, behaviour is maintained as gamblers believe the next bet will be lucky, but that luck may never come. Additionally, the long interval SOR causes powerful reinforcement as rarity heightens the satisfaction of a monetary reward.  So that’s why I feel so good when I finally win a couple of pounds.

Image result for gambling brain

One of Betfair’s advertisements uses the slogan ‘tap tap boom’. This could be because it is fun to say, or it could be to emphasize the ease of betting. In terms of Ajzen’s Theory of Planned Behaviour, the consumers’ perceived behavioural control (PBC) is manipulated (Ajzen, 1991). PBC is a person’s subjective perception of how easy it is to perform a behaviour and is determined by control beliefs about what factors could prevent a behaviour. The advert demolishes any control beliefs as it highlights how there are no barriers stopping you from throwing your money away! Therefore, my belief (wanting to bet) is more likely to be translated into behaviour (betting) and I give Betfair what they want (money).

In addition, whenever you place a bet, a big, green BOOM appears on your screen which, in my experience, elicits a feel of satisfaction. I believe this to be similar to clicker training in that I have associated this conditioned stimulus with the real reinforcer, money, as the two occur in conjunction. Consequently, I’m left grinning whilst I throw my money away.  

Image result for tap tap boom betfair

Another Betfair technique comes in the form of a Cash-out scheme: if your bet is on the cards, Betfair will give you the option to take a smaller reward rather than risk it not paying off. This may seem generous but Betfair are actually manipulating risk aversion perfectly. Expected Utility theory posits that risk averse individuals have a diminishing value of rewards (a concave utility function) and therefore, most gamblers do not value the possible larger payoff. Subsequently, Betfair lose less money even though the odds are in the favour of the gambler. Conversely, as Prospect Theory predicts, gamblers will rarely cash out when the offer is less than their deposit due to a risk seeking tendency (a convex utility function) in the loss domain. Gamblers would rather persist in the off chance their bet succeeds and so Betfair usually receive the whole deposit. So, to conclude, my cowardliness is a source of money for Betfair.

Image result for cash out betfair

Betfair’s latest offer states that if you place £50 on bets you get £20 free! This looks amazing from afar however Reciprocity is a strong notion. One example of the phenomenon is shown by Heilman et al (2011) who found that  taking free samples at Costco increased individuals likelihood of buying from a brand. Similarly, by promising us gamblers free bets, we subconsciously feel like we owe the company something i.e.  our loyalty and, of course, money. In addition, I have observed that with free bets, I am more likely to bet on unlikely occurrences because the thought of free money somehow overrides my usual cowardliness. This develops a high risk appetite and may encourage me to bet on unlikely outcomes in the future. I never win high risk bets and Betfair laugh their way to the bank.   
 Image result for betfair free bets

Who knew Betfair could persuade me to waste my student loan. I guess I'll always be a loser. 

Ajzen, I. (1991). The theory of planned behavior. Organizational behavior and human decision processes, 50(2), 179-211. 
Heilman, C., Lakishyk, K., & Radas, S. (2011). An empirical investigation of in-store sampling promotions. British Food Journal, 113(10), 1252-1266. 
Hewig, J., Kretschmer, N., Trippe, R. H., Hecht, H., Coles, M. G., Holroyd, C. B., & Miltner, W. H. (2010). Hypersensitivity to reward in problem gamblers. Biological psychiatry, 67(8), 781-783. 
Kahneman, D., & Tversky, A. (1984). Choices, values, and frames. American psychologist, 39(4), 341. 
Oberg, S. A., Christie, G. J., & Tata, M. S. (2011). Problem gamblers exhibit reward hypersensitivity in medial frontal cortex during gambling. Neuropsychologia, 49(13), 3768-3775. 
Pryor, K. (1985). Don't shoot the dog! Toronto: Bantam Books.
Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: an experimental analysis. Appleton-Century. New York.

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