The effects of alcohol on sequential decision-making biases during gambling

Abstract

Rationale

Gambling and alcohol use are recreational behaviours that share substantial commonalities at a phenomenological, clinical and neurobiological level. Past studies have shown that alcohol can have a disinhibiting effect on gambling behaviour, in terms of bet size and persistence.

Objectives

This study was conducted in order to characterise how alcohol affects biases in judgment and decision-making that occur during gambling, with a focus on sequential decision-making including the gambler’s fallacy.

Methods

Sequential biases were elicited via a roulette-based gambling task. Using a standard between-groups alcohol challenge procedure, male participants played the roulette task 20 min after receiving an alcoholic (0.8 g/kg; n = 22) or placebo (n = 16) beverage. The task measured colour choice decisions (red/black) and bet size, in response to varying lengths of colour runs and winning/losing feedback streaks.

Results

Across both groups, a number of established sequential biases were observed. On colour choice, there was an effect of run length in line with the gambler’s fallacy, which further varied by previous feedback (wins vs losses). Bet size increased with feedback streaks, especially for losing streaks. Compared to placebo, the alcohol group placed higher bets following losses compared to wins.

Conclusions

Increased bet size after losses following alcohol consumption may reflect increased loss chasing that may amplify gambling harms. Our results do not fit a simple pattern of enhanced gambling distortions or reward sensitivity, but help contextualise the effects of alcohol on gambling to research on decision-making biases.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Dr Josef Schlittenlacher for his kind assistance with coding in MATLAB.

Funding

JTW was funded by a Cambridge Australia Poynton Scholarship. The Centre for Gambling Research at UBC (LC, EHL-O) is supported by funding from the British Columbia Lottery Corporation and the Province of British Columbia government. LC and EHL-O received funding from the Medical Research Council (G1100554). LC holds a Discovery Award from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC; RGPIN-2017-04069).

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Correspondence to Luke Clark.

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Conflict of Interest

LC is the Director of the Centre for Gambling Research at UBC, which is supported by the Province of British Columbia government and the British Columbia Lottery Corporation (BCLC). The BCLC is a Canadian Crown Corporation. The Province of British Columbia government and BCLC had no involvement in the research design, methodology, conduct, analysis or write-up of the study, and impose no constraints on publishing. LC has received travel/accommodation reimbursements for speaking engagements from the National Center for Responsible Gaming (US) and National Association of Gambling Studies (Australia) and has received honoraria for academic services from the National Center for Responsible Gaming (US) and Gambling Research Exchange Ontario (Canada). He has not received any further direct or indirect payments from the gambling industry or groups substantially funded by gambling. He has received royalties from Cambridge Cognition Ltd. relating to the licensing of a neurocognitive test. EHLO is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Gambling Research at UBC, supported by funding from the Province of British Columbia and the British Columbia Lottery Corporation (BCLC), a Canadian Crown Corporation. She has received a speaker honorarium from the Massachusetts Council on Compulsive Gambling (US) and accepted travel/accommodation for speaking engagements from the National Council for Responsible Gambling (US), the International Multidisciplinary Symposium on Gambling Addiction (Switzerland) and the Responsible Gambling Council (Canada). She has not received any further direct or indirect payments from the gambling industry or groups substantially funded by gambling. The other authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Ethical approval

The study was approved by the University of Cambridge Psychology Research Ethics Committee. All procedures involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments.

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Tobias-Webb, J., Limbrick-Oldfield, E.H., Vearncombe, S. et al. The effects of alcohol on sequential decision-making biases during gambling. Psychopharmacology 237, 395–407 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-019-05376-z

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Keywords

  • Alcohol
  • Gambling
  • Cognitive distortions
  • Loss chasing
  • Roulette