Friday 13 September 2013

Why I oppose gambling - A humanist perspective

I don't like gambling.  Many people don't like gambling, some for religious reasons.  But I'm a humanist, so I have no religious reasons.  So why do I oppose it?

We all live under the illusion that what we see is real, and what we think is true.  These illusions are so compelling that many people refuse to believe that our awareness is an illusion, but neuroscience and the study of the paranormal prove that the images in our minds are not accurate pictures of the real world.

Some of the differences between human perception and reality are classified under the title 'cognitive biases'.  These include the perception that 'I' am more important to the world around me than is justified.  Another key human bias is that we have a tendency to overestimate the chance of good things happening to us, and underestimate the chance of bad things happening, even in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary.

Because we are alive, we are descended from ancestors who won through tough times and out-competed their peers in the struggle for survival and reproduction.  And we inherited the traits which helped make that difference, for example the tendency to persevere in the face of adversity, and not the abilities accurately to assess probabilities of success versus failure.  Indeed, we are spectacularly maladapted for mathematics, which is why so many of us find it hard.  We have to defeat our in-built biases and become disciplined in following rules of logic which are as unnatural as they are successful.

Just how bad we are at intuitive math, particularly when it comes to assessing risk and probability, is shown by the following BBC video.  When I first saw this kind of demonstration I was utterly convinced that the probability of winning remained 50:50, (you'll see what I mean when you watch it).  Even Professor of Mathematics Marcus du Sautoy was convinced.  He worked it out mathematically, I modelled the game in Excel, (independently of course, I don't move in such noble circles), and the correct answer really is 1 in 3 if you keep to your original guess.

BBC News Magazine - Monty Hall problem: The probability puzzle that makes your head melt

So what has this to do with gambling?  Well we're programmed to assess risk and probability incorrectly.  We inherently overestimate our chance of winning compared to losing.  If Alan had been tempted to bet on the game, Marcus could've cleaned him out.  Alan is inherently no worse at this than you, me or anyone else.  And when we use intuition and common sense about gambling, we make decisiona as rational as a child playing on a railway track.

The only gambling I entertain is the English Grand National, (an annual horse race over jumps, on which many people make a token bet).  But I take the role of family bookmaker and stakes each person can afford to lose.  I've come away on top every year except one.  Even when my wife got third place this year, I paid out less in winnings than I made in stakes on her other bets.  And that's how gambling works - it's always rigged against the punter, it's just that we're all programmed to ignore that fact.

This makes gambling as much a vice as addiction to narcotics.  And the bookmaker is the pusher.  Both vices involve bypassing reasoned choice.  Both involve someone making money by exploiting other people whose decision making is compromised.  Both ruin lives.  And in my opinion, both should be outlawed.