We’ve all heard of pigeon fanciers, but how about pigeons who fancy a flutter? Recent research by American psychologist, Professor Thomas Zentall, suggests that human and animal behaviour is more similar than biologists may have previously thought, particularly when it comes to gambling. Zentall’s findings, called comparative cognition research, have provided proof that racing pigeons have the same tendency to gamble as humans.
In his experiments Zental provided the pigeons with two choices, a fifty-fifty gamble. One choice ensured that the pigeons would get a guaranteed small amount of food pellets every time, the other choice provided them with only a 20 percent chance that they would be rewarded; with either a ‘jackpot’ of pellets or nothing at all. Amazingly, the results of the experiment showed that pigeons choose to gamble and perhaps for the same reasons that humans do – because they enjoyed it. “There’s something at a fundamental level for the attraction to gambling,” Zentall said, “some complicated human behaviour may not be as complicated as social scientists have said.”
Perhaps it’s in the pigeon’s blood; after all they seem to enjoy racing, but what about rats? Another set of research seems to prove that rats like to play the odds just as much as their feathered brethren. A group of rats in laboratory tests have learnt to gamble based on a system of punishment and reward; they even strategise like the best human gamblers and it didn’t take long for them to get the gambling bug.
The researchers even devised the rats their very own game show. Sugar pellets were placed in specially built boxes which incorporated four ‘response holes.’ Each opening had a possibility of earning treats – from one up to four, depending on the opening chosen – and when one of the rodents poked its snout into a hole, the movement broke an infra-red light signalling a computer to either award a pellet ‘WIN’ or a ‘LOSE’ timeout. To add to the excitement, the game was played against the clock, the rats having only 30 minutes to accumulate as many sugar pellets as they could.
The rats quickly caught on to the game, realising that by choosing the openings that offered the greatest number of pellets, they also risked the longest time-outs during which they could not play the game, The animals learned that the best way to maximize the number of pellets was to play conservatively, choosing openings that offered fewer pellets but lesser punishments, instead of risking long time-outs for a jackpot of pellets. Even so, some rats took more risks than others, much in the same ways as some humans take bigger risks than others.
Dolphins are also able to understand the principles of gambling, play the odds, and work out when and when not, to take big risks.
Specially-trained dolphins are being used to help clear mines from the battle-scarred port of Umm Qasr and have been taught how to locate submerged mines and explosives buried deep in the silt. To train the dolphins the animals were taught about risk and chance by focussing in on their keen sense of smell and a similar WIN/LOSE system as that used in the rat experiments – only this time with higher stakes.
At first the Dolphins seemed keen to take big risks; but as the severity of losing was increased – in this case an unpleasant sonic shrill, not harmful but annoying to Dolphins – their desire to gamble against ridiculous odds reduced. Major Andy Hopkinson whose unit trained the dolphins says: “It’s an amazing sight to see them at work and it sounds like something from the movies, but it’s a very effective way of finding hidden ordnance.”
Pigeons, rats, dolphins – it really does seem to be anyone’s game. But it’s with the apes that the stakes are really upped, and it seems that we have more similarities with our closest relatives than just physical appearance. Like us, apes are natural born gamblers, in fact all primates are natural born gamblers; gambling is in their DNA, hidden within what has become known as the ‘gambling gene’. What is most surprising though is that studies show that only a relatively small percentage of human babies have this gene but all the apes that have been tested have been found to possess it.
One example of a gifted gambling ape is Vinny, a 12 year old chimpanzee from Kansas City, who loves to gamble. It all started when young Vinny sat watching two young biology students playing a game of craps during their lunch break at the KC Institute for Primate Studies. Of course, had the two students not been playing for bananas as a joke it may simply have stopped at that, but Vinny loved bananas and they had his full attention. About fifteen minutes into the game the two students realized that Vinny was showing the same signs of excitement as they were; jumping, screaming, and craving for some action. Yes, Vinny knew that they were gambling, and he wanted to be dealt into the game.
The students realised that they were on to something and decided to train some of the chimps at the facility to press a red button to open a door that would gave them access to a single banana and a green button to open a door to a box that was often empty, but sometimes contained a bonanza of bananas. The chimps learnt quickly and after months of teaching they were finally given the choice of being able to press both buttons at the same time. In all of the experiments, all of the chimps always pressed the green button and completely ignored the red one. It seemed the chimps liked to gamble.
From here, using the same techniques, the chimps were taught to add and subtract, hold and use playing cards, and eventually to play blackjack. Today Vinny – the chimp that made it all possible – makes in excess of $80,000 a year gambling at cards and dice… and its all tax free as the US IRS has never passed legislation to tax the income of chimps.
Another chimp, Mikey the Poker Playing Ape, has become a celebrity across the globe and has already planned his retirement. With hundreds of thousands of YouTube hits and appearances on Good Morning America, Inside Edition, CBS, FOX News, and others, Mikey made a real impact on the hearts of the American gambling public when he was refused entry to the 2006 World Series of Poker. Mikey’s fame has led to appearances in Vogue and on the Black Eyed Peas CD, he’s even played against some of the best poker players in the world. Pro player Marcel Luske enjoyed playing against Mikey and said after their game in 2006: “Playing against Mikey was certainly interesting, he was well behaved and the game was a lot more civil than other games I have played in my poker career.”
Who knows what other members of the animal kingdom might make great gamblers? Elephants are supposed to have great memories and fishes often form schools, but I don’t expect to see horses coming out of the bookies anytime soon… As W. C. Fields famously once said “Horse sense is the thing a horse has which keeps it from betting on people.”