04 September 2004

SKINNER, GAMBLING, and KERRY

In my last post, I discussed the Kerry campaign, and its satellite the Cobb/Kerry campaign, as gambles. Gamble on Kerry being better than Bush. The possibility remains, I argued, that Kerry could be worse than Bush, attempting to disguise problems which today seem obvious under Bush.

The behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner had some important things to say about gambling. Behavioral experiments upon rats show that reinforcement schedules, where rats are rewarded with food after pressing a bar a certain number of times, can persuade rats to press a bar a whole lot. Skinner theorized that variable reinforcement schedules, where the rats receive a reward food pellet after a random number of bar presses, created rats who were prone to pressing the bar an endless number of times:

Skinner also looked at variable schedules. Variable ratio means you change the “x” each time -- first it takes 3 presses to get a goodie, then 10, then 1, then 7 and so on. Variable interval means you keep changing the time period -- first 20 seconds, then 5, then 35, then 10 and so on.

In both cases, it keeps the rats on their rat toes. With the variable interval schedule, they no longer “pace” themselves, because they no can no longer establish a “rhythm” between behavior and reward. Most importantly, these schedules are very resistant to extinction. It makes sense, if you think about it. If you haven’t gotten a reinforcer for a while, well, it could just be that you are at a particularly “bad” ratio or interval! Just one more bar press, maybe this’ll be the one!

This, according to Skinner, is the mechanism of gambling. You may not win very often, but you never know whether and when you’ll win again. It could be the very next time, and if you don’t roll them dice, or play that hand, or bet on that number this once, you’ll miss on the score of the century!

This simple behavioral explanation accounts for the addictiveness of gambling. I have to wonder if it also might account for the addictiveness of the two major political parties in the United States. As long as the Democrat and Republican politicians dole out some sort of benefit to the public every once in awhile, the parade of financially-wasteful military adventures and bomb-building boondoggles can continue uninterrupted, because we are addicted to gambling upon these parties with our votes. Perhaps Thoreau was right about voting:
All voting is a sort of gaming, like checkers or backgammon, with a slight moral tinge to it, a playing with right and wrong, with moral questions; and betting naturally accompanies it. The character of the voters is not staked. I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail.

It's time for something better than voting, for the sake of democracy.

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