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Medical News Today: 'Rat casino' shows flashing lights incite risky gambling moves

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It finally happened. Researchers have created a “rat casino” model with the aim of studying to what extent flashing lights and music – typically experienced at casinos – encourage risky decision-making. The results form a scientific basis for the lure of the glimmering lights of Vegas.
Casino lights
Adding lights and music encouraged gambling rats to choose risky options in a so-called rat casino model.


“I often feel that scientific models are decades behind the casinos,” says Catharine Winstanley. “I don’t think it’s an accident that casinos are filled with lights and noise.”


Winstanley, associate professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia in Canada, was part of the team that conducted the study, recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience.


She and colleague Michael Barrus, PhD, say that similar to other addiction disorders – such as with drugs or alcohol – gambling cues are believed to play a significant role in mediating their addictive nature.


Although previous animal models of gambling behavior have involved aspects of economic decision-making, the researchers say they have not addressed the impact certain cues may have on encouraging risky behaviors.


As such, the team created a so-called rat casino, in which they tested 32 male rats that gambled for sugary treats. Although the rats typically learn very quickly how to avoid the riskier options, the researchers say that adding flashing lights and sounds changed their behavior.

Fear and loathing in Rat Vegas


Anyone who has ever visited a casino knows all too well the type of environment the researchers aimed to create for the rats. In his iconic novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson sets the scene:


“Psychedelics are almost irrelevant in a town where you can wander into a casino any time of the day or night and witness the crucifixion of a gorilla – on a flaming neon cross that suddenly turns into a pinwheel, spinning the beast around in wild circles above the crowded gambling action.”


Winstanley says when they were designing their experiment, “it seemed […] like a stupid thing to do, because it didn’t seem like adding lights and sound would have much of an impact. But when we ran the study, the effect was enormous.”


The team found that adding lights and music to the gambling game encouraged the rats to choose “disadvantageous risky options,” compared with the rats that gambled without lights and music.


“Anyone who’s ever designed a casino game or played a gambling game will tell you that of course sound and light cues keep you more engaged, but now we can show it scientifically,” says Winstanley.


She explains their study further in the video below: