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.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Big Bill's Protégé

On my 18th birthday one of the first things I did was go into a Ladbrokes and place a £10 bet on the weekends football , the bookie offered me a ‘free’ £5 in-play bet online if I upped my stake another fiver- so I did. I never told him but I was in awe of ‘big Bill’ the bookie that took my coupon. Yes he smelt like a pungent cocktail of stale cigarettes and sweat and had all the personality of a breeze block but from behind that clear sheet of Perspex Big Bill witnessed winners, losers, desperation, greed, enjoyment, all the emotions that sow life’s rich tapestry, he saw them on a daily basis. That and he had access to an almost infinite number of small blue biros. Body odour and tent sized shirts aside, I want to be just like Bill and I want to be the best at it. How will I do that? By putting applied behaviour analysis into practice. 

The sayings go ‘you never see a bookie on a pushbike’ or ‘the house always wins’  -absolutely true, bookmakers know how to influence us.  Pretty much every online betting firm out there offers some kind of free bet offer when a new customer signs up. Take SkyBet for example. If you create an account with SkyBet they will give you a free ‘no strings attached’ £10 bet on any markets from football to roulette, the colour of the queens hat at her next public appearance to the first country to make alien contact (seriously those markets are out there- look it up). Based on the reciprocity principle1 we use and probably lose the free bet but feel a need to reciprocate the gesture by providing custom. However, the commitment to SkyBet isn’t based purely on the reciprocation of a token gesture- that could possibly account for rebetting once, maybe twice but there becomes a point when you end up staking much more than a tenner. 

When we place a bet for the first time many of us experience a sharp increase in the ‘pleasurable’ neurotransmitters such as dopamine and endorphins2- the very same that provide the euphoric sensation during an orgasm. The law of effect3 tells me that if I take your non-gambling behaviour and introduce it to gambling by introduction of a free bet then there is a high likelihood that you will begin to associate the positive physiological arousal with the act of placing a bet. Therefore you will be more likely to repeat gambling behaviour. 

I know that when you lose a bet there is an air of negative reinforcement tempting you back to your baseline non-gambling behaviour particularly if you end up losing big, which is why I would increase the magnitude of positive reinforcement4 so not only do you stand a chance of winning the potential returns of your bet but you also have the opportunity to earn loyalty rewards by repeat betting which may come in the form of free bets or reimbursing your losing bets every now and again5- quite literally offering you another throw of the dice. According to the theory of positive reinforcement you are much more likely to repeat a behaviour if they ultimately result in rewards4. It doesn’t matter though- eventually, you’ll lose big. When that big black cloud is hanging over your head I’ll try not to splash you on your bike as I charge through in my range rover. Happy gambling.

Rory MacLeod
Blog 4


1.    1. Onur-Bodur, H., & Grohmann, B. (2005). Consumer responses to gift receipt in business to consumer contexts. Psychology & Marketing, 22, 441-456.

2.    2. Comings, D. E., Gade-Andavolu, R., Gonzalez, N., Wu, S., Muhleman, D., Chen, C., Koh, P., Farwell, K., Blak, H., Dietz, G., MacMurray, J. P., Lesiur, H. R., Rugle, L. J., & Rosenthal, R. J. (2001). The addictive of neurotransmitter genes in pathological gambling. Clinical Genetics, 60, 107-116.

3.    3. Thorndike, E.L. (1927). The Law of Effect. The American Journal of Psychology, 39, 212-222.

      4. Skinner, B. F. (1938). The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis. New York: Appleton-Century.

      5.  Smeat, M., & Griffiths, M. (2004). Internet gambling and social responsibility: An exploratory study. Cyber Psychology & Behaviour, 7, 49-57.

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