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Psychology doctoral student explores gambling and survival

Wednesday, February 29, 2012 – Ravi K. Gandhi

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Why do some people gamble, even in the face of near-impossible odds?  To get to the origin of this question, Darby Proctor, a Ph.D candidate in Psychology, has set up a casino on campus for chimpanzees and monkeys.  And to help complete her investigation, the American Psychological Association recently awarded her one of its annual dissertation research grants.   

“People will often say they are ‘due’ to win since they have been losing for awhile.  But this is an emotional response, not one based on the probability of winning,” Proctor stated.  “A critical question is how humans came to make what appear to be extremely irrational decisions.”

And that is why Proctor is studying the behavior of non-human primates.  Working in the Cebus Lab (Comparative Economics and Behavioral Studies) within GSU’s Language Research Center, Proctor is arranging “gambling tasks” for chimpanzees and monkeys to observe and explore what evolutionary basis there might be for human gambling. She is also devising similar gambling tasks for human children in order to directly compare us to these other primates.

“Is this behavior unique to humans? Or is gambling more widespread in primate lineage? If so, why did gambling evolve and what selective pressures may have led to this behavior?”

“There may in fact be some evolutionary benefit from having strong emotional reactions, even if they lead to irrational economic decisions,” Proctor suggested. “Might irrational behavior as typified by gambling be helpful to survival in some situations?”

An answer or approach to this question may also inform a deeper understanding of human gambling disorders and how they may be treated, she added.

The study of primate evolution and behavior is one of the university’s Second Century Initiative (2CI) areas of focus.  

Proctor hopes to complete her dissertation in May.