8 minutes reading time (1552 words)

Betting, risk-taking, poverty and stress

A forthcoming government document  is about to  report a huge surge in spending on betting and gambling in the poorest areas of Britain. Particularly worrying is the high levels of betting using high speed machines  In the 55 most deprived boroughs of the country there are  2,691 betting shops,  and over £13bn was bet and apparently  £470m of that lost during the, last year. In contrast our 115 richest areas had just 1,258 bookies, even though  the population was the same, and only  £6.5bn was bet with losses of  £231m, within the same 12 months.


Of course many will people feel this is exploitative and that controls need to be in place in order to safeguard the most vulnerable in society. The areas that are targeted by bookmakers are, not surprisingly  those with the most poverty, crime and unemployment.

There is a real danger though that, despite good intentions, reporting these issues can feed into prejudices about the most disadvantaged being feckless, unreliable, bringing on their own downfall , or in other words the problem with poverty resides with the poor.

Thus I think it is worth examining  the surprisingly powerful psychobiological effects of stress , poverty or living in more dangerous neighbourhoods.  Much of the evidence from disciplines such as life-course history [1]  ( a branch of evolutionary thinking )  suggests that stress inducing environments lead to more risk-taking.

For example boys brought up in environments which are more run-down, and for example have  more boarded up shops, tend to have higher levels of testosterone than boys from similar socioeconomic groups living in more affluent areas [2]. They also consume more cannabis. In other studies children born into poverty showed lower theta brain waves in their frontal lobes and were less able to screen out irrelevant information, or in other words could concentrate less [3]. In yet another study children born into poverty had less self-control and were more likely to use drugs and alcohol in adolescence [4]. Risk-taking comes with the territory of lowered life-chances, stress and poverty.

We are all prone to take more risks when life feels less stable. Interesting experiments recently showed that when people are made to feel left out of a group they tend to make riskier financial decisions [5],. Indeed people take more risks anyway when they feel more socially excluded,  similar research asserts,. In another experiment some people were fed bad economic news, and not others. Then a range of foods was put in front of them. Those primed with bad economic news consumed more high calorie foods than the others [6].

Many of the findings in this area link to research which is currently very popular on impulsivity and self-control [7], [8]. Most famously, the  marshmallow test by Robert Mischels showed the very longterm benefits of delayed gratification in toddlers, the benfits including better work and relationship prospects for example. Interestingly more recent tests showed that the marshmallow test is not just about temperament. If children are let down by the experimenters who deliberately act unreliably before the test, then they are much more likely to have the one marshmallow in front of them than the kids with whom the experimenter had previously acted reliably [9]. The logic of this is that if we see an apple that is not quite ripe, if we think it might be there in a day or two, or that there are plenty more about to come our way, then we are more likely to wait, but if this might be the only chance, we grab it now.

Obviously those exposed to more uncertainty and stressors over a lifetime will be affected more. Really importantly Griskevicius’ [10] research found that when people are given cues that suggest a dangerous situation is looming, those brought up in poorer socio-economic circumstances tend to then take more risks, while those brought up economically advantaged tend to take a slower, more risk averse strategy. Very early programming and beliefs about what we can expect from life non-consciously affect our later decision-making. These experiments seem to suggest that if our early experiences lead us to expect security then when scarcity looms, we will be more careful, reigning ourselves in for a rainy day. However those whose early experiences suggested less safety or abundance quickly revert to more risky behaviour as their default survival response when situations look less hopeful.

Increased poverty does of course then create the perfect environment in which activities such as betting, drug use and other risk taking activities are likely to thrive. Such activities are often seen as morally wrong, and those on the right who take a moral high ground might suggest that such people need to be educated  or learn to take more personal responsibility,  maybe that they are unreliable and have only themselves to blame. What the research shows time and again though is that humans are primed to respond to take more risks when confronted by  stressful or anxiety provoking environments, such as poverty, unemployment, violent neighbourhoods or other pressures.

Indeed many other mammals also take more risks in less safe situations, which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Carefully planning ahead for the future wont help if it is a struggle to survive the next few hours or days, and if those next days aren’t survived, then we are not going to pass on your genes to the next generation. We all need that faster, more risk-taking strategy in our evolutionary repertoire, and scary contexts will bring these potentials powerfully to the fore. Indeed recent research by Daniel Nettle and others [11] found that, maybe not surprisingly, those living in high crime areas were less trusting and more paranoid than those living in lower crime areas. What maybe was not predicted was that transporting student volunteers who belonged to neither neighbourhood caused  a change in attitude in just a few hours, with those visiting the higher crime areas quickly showing less trust and more fear. We would all probably respond in the same way, and these responses are non-conscious and have subtle  bodily effects.

By the same token much research is showing that priming people with bad economic news will lead to them being more likely to choose high over low calorie food [6], substance misuse [4], and a whole host of poor health outcomes linked to stress and anxiety. Thus while Maria Miller, the culture secretary is arguing  that .the poor need more protection from the gambling industry , and  she might have a point, what is maybe more to the point is that it is the social conditions that give rise to increased gambling, and much other risk-taking, that needs to be tackled. This is not a question of feckless individuals but maybe of an increasingly unequal and feckless dog-eat-dog society.


[1]        J. Belsky, G. L. Schlomer, and B. J. Ellis, ‘Beyond cumulative risk: Distinguishing harshness and unpredictability as determinants of parenting and early life history strategy.’, Developmental psychology, vol. 48, no. 3, pp. 662–673, 2012.

[2]        R. E. Tarter, L. Kirisci, J. S. Gavaler, M. Reynolds, G. Kirillova, D. B. Clark, J. Wu, H. B. Moss, and M. Vanyukov, ‘Prospective Study of the Association Between Abandoned Dwellings and Testosterone Level on the Development of Behaviors Leading to Cannabis Use Disorder in Boys’, Biological Psychiatry, vol. 65, no. 2, pp. 116–121, Jan. 2009.

[3]        A. D’angiulli, P. M. Van Roon, J. Weinberg, T. F. Oberlander, R. E. Grunau, C. Hertzman, and S. Maggi, ‘Frontal EEG/ERP correlates of attentional processes, cortisol and motivational states in adolescents from lower and higher socioeconomic status’, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, vol. 6, 2012.

[4]        C.-T. Lee, F. J. McClernon, S. H. Kollins, K. Prybol, and B. F. Fuemmeler, ‘Childhood economic strains in predicting substance use in emerging adulthood: Mediation effects of youth self-control and parenting practices’, Journal of pediatric psychology, 2013.

[5]        R. Duclos, E. W. Wan, and Y. Jiang, ‘Effects of Social Exclusion on Financial Risk-Taking’, Journal of Consumer Research, 2013.

[6]        J. Laran and A. Salerno, ‘Life-history strategy, food choice, and caloric consumption’, Psychological science, vol. 24, no. 2, pp. 167–173, 2013.

[7]        J. Metcalfe and W. Mischel, ‘A hot/cool-system analysis of delay of gratification: Dynamics of willpower’, Psychological Review, vol. 106, pp. 3–19, 1999.

[8]        B. J. Casey, L. H. Somerville, I. H. Gotlib, O. Ayduk, N. T. Franklin, M. K. Askren, J. Jonides, M. G. Berman, N. L. Wilson, T. Teslovich, G. Glover, V. Zayas, W. Mischel, and Y. Shoda, ‘Behavioral and Neural Correlates of Delay of Gratification 40 Years Later’, PNAS, vol. 108, no. 36, pp. 14998–15003, Jun. 2011.

[9]        C. Kidd, H. Palmeri, and R. N. Aslin, ‘Rational snacking: Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability’, Cognition, vol. 126, no. 1, pp. 109–114, 2013.

[10]      V. Griskevicius, J. M. Ackerman, S. M. Cantú, A. W. Delton, T. E. Robertson, J. A. Simpson, M. E. Thompson, and J. M. Tybur, ‘When the economy falters, do people spend or save? Responses to resource scarcity depend on childhood environments’, Psychological science, vol. 24, no. 2, pp. 197–205, 2013.

[11]      D. Nettle, G. V. Pepper, R. Jobling, and K. B. Schroeder, ‘Being there: a brief visit to a neighbourhood induces the social attitudes of that neighbourhood’, PeerJ, vol. 2, p. e236, Jan. 2014.


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