It’s easy to think that it’s hard for those of us who don’t gamble to get inside the mindset of those who do. We picture smoky rooms where fortunes can be won or lost in the instant it takes a croupier to flick his wrist. To most of us that seems frighteningly alien. But actually, we all gamble in every day situations where the stakes are far higher than those on the turn of a card.
We might take a new job somewhere, move house or run a red light. We kid ourselves that these are rational choices, but in many ways we are subjected to whims of fate that are far more complicated than those in a straightforward game of chance such as poker or bingo. Our new job might see us working with people we don’t like. We might be out of our depth in new surroundings. Perhaps the reasonable manager of the interview turns out to be an ogre to actually work for. The company could go broke within weeks of us joining. None of these things are quantifiable, and yet they can have far more deleterious effects on our lives than merely dropping $50 in a hand of cards.
Those we define as “gamblers” are typically those who play in a game of quantifiable odds for a certain outcome. We kid ourselves that our own lives don’t contain huge elements of gambling.
Where the gambling impulse in this scenario becomes problematic is that the goals which seem so clear at the outset can quickly outpace your situation. You come into a game with $200 – and before you know it you can be $500 down. Confirmation bias means that we are likely to throw good money after bad to try and ‘get back’ to a winning situation.
Most gambling situations are also ‘zero sum’. If 5 players sit down at the table with $2000 between them, 4 of them will collectively lose most – and probably all – of their share. Most real-life situations do not have that same certainty of total loss. The awful job might be offset by a good salary. The terrible boss might actually spur us on to prove him wrong. If the company as a whole prospers, everyone gets an increased share of the new wealth without loss.
Perhaps that’s the biggest difference between”gambling” in the sense of gaming and gambling with life. Games take place in a short, compressed timescale and you know that your fate could be sealed within hours. In most life situations, events unfold far more leisurely pace. So leisurely in fact that we might not even notice the outcomes happening. Unhappiness can creep up so slowly that we fail to recognise it for years.
By contrast, a gamble in the gaming sense compresses that sequence of events into a few moments. That compressed rush of danger heightens the senses, sharpens our awareness of what’s at stake and unleashes a complex set of emotional and physiological responses that can be deeply, deeply compelling.
And this is why we gamble.