The Iowa Gambling Task

Whenever academic research takes place on a topic to do with gambling, it is worth taking note and reading through any associated papers. Psychology as we all know is a massive component of the casino industry. The process of making a decision in the casino can be refined and analyzed as a series of concurrent micro-processes in the neocortex. We all respond to reward and penalty in similar ways. This is especially relevant when we begin to study human behavior in the context of gambling at a casino. Given the choice of multiple decks, users begin to develop an intuition in the Iowa gambling game as to where the rewards are most likely to come from. Many lessons can be ascertained from this simple concept, and in the following paragraphs we’ll take a closer look at the scientific findings of this test.
Several people, around a desk, looking at data on a computer screen.
Published on: 8 November 2019

How is the Task Structured?

The Iowa Gambling Task is an incredibly simple test. The participant is presented with four virtual decks of cards if playing on a computer, or four real decks if doing the test in the physical domain. The participant is informed that the outcome of each choice, that being which deck they choose to draw a card from, will reward or penalize them. The aim of the game is to raise as much money as possible through maximizing the rewards and minimizing the number of penalties incurred. After several plays on each deck the participant should understand and form an intuition of how to proceed in the game. The key here is that you must use this specific set up for the test. However, you can notice the patterns of behavior while playing online blackjack or playing roulette.

Four playing cards, labeled A, B, C and D.

Common Findings Upon Completion of the Task

The majority of participants sample a few cards from each deck to gain an understanding of the game mechanics. Once an intuition has been developed, usually at about 20-30 selections into the game, the player is generally very good at selecting the cards from the decks that will most efficiently build their reward/bank balance in the game. However, the test is designed to identify patients with an orbitofrontal cortex dysfunction (OFCD). In the case a patient playing the Iowa Gambling Test has an OFCD, the likeliness is they will fail to recognize the decks that reward them the most efficient and will continue to persevere with bad decks. Furthermore, researchers are able to monitor the reaction time of each choice on the player. Healthy patients are witnessed as displaying a stress reaction to hovering over bad decks, even after just 10 selections into the game. By contrast, players with neurological dysfunctions continue to choose outcomes that yield high immediate rewards in spite of higher losses in the future.

Bechara and Damasio explain these findings in great detail. The key conclusion relates to the somatic marker hypothesis, which ascertains that key decision making is often made in the heat of emotions and it is emotions that ultimately guide behavior and decision making. This obviously has particular relevance to gambling psychology which we will attempt to bring into the equation in the following section. If you want a quick break from the dense psychological analysis, have a read of this relatable article on how gamblers try to get good luck.

Can the Iowa Gambling Task Identify Gambling Addiction?

It seems like a very logical conclusion to make given the results of healthy and dysfunctional patients. The apparent inability to recognize risk whilst making a decision, and being blinded by the potential to yield larger immediate gains is a familiar problem to anyone who understands gambling addiction. Participants who are constantly choosing a deck that will yield higher gains but comes with a much higher chance of a high penalty are more likely to become gambling addicts. Players who recognize that small incremental gains at a low-risk desk are better for them in the long-run are less likely to be gambling addicts. This simple hypothesis has become the foundation of this test and remains a large reason why it is attributed to pushing advancements in the assistance of gambling addiction.

What Other Lessons Can We Learn from the Iowa Gambling Test

Whilst the conclusions drawn from the Iowa Gambling test is indeed very fascinating, they are by no means the limit of this psychological phenomenon. The test itself can be used to extrapolate many conclusions about the process of human decision making. Below we have selected some of the most interesting conclusions found by studies of the Iowa Gambling Test. In particular, there is a fundamental need to explain the connection between emotion and decision-making.

  • Gain and loss frequency are in fact the most crucial features of a gambling game when determining which one to choose. Subjects in the Iowa Gambling Test who are of a healthy pre-disposition were increasingly more likely to choose the deck that gave the most wins, despite the size of the reward.
  • Having the ability to memorize stuff and rules lead to favorable decision making. Subjects who are able to work something out, and at the same time remember crucial details about a task were far more likely to succeed in the Iowa Gambling Task.
  • Participants who take fewer drugs either medication or recreational performed far better under the pressure of the Iowa Gambling Task. It is well-known that recreational drug use has an adverse effect on the psychology of the individual. With this in mind, it explains a lot of the detrimental connections between drugs and gambling addiction.
  • Anxiety and other mental conditions of a similar nature tend to cause a negative impact on our ability to make good decisions. With the pressure of reward and risk, participants with high-anxiety are often likely to avoid risk all together at all costs. This can lead to a high opportunity cost from missing out on potential gains.

A Few Final Words

The Iowa Gambling Task is by all measures a fascinating concept and study of the human decision-making process. The results gained from such a study can indeed be utilized and deployed to better understand gambling addiction and greater mysteries around the human psyche. For more wonderful reports on psychology in gambling, check out our article on the Gamblers Fallacy. If you think that you may be developing or already have unhealthy attitudes while gambling, read our guide to responsible gambling.

You can find out more about the Iowa Gambling Task here.

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