How flashing lights and sounds encourage risky behavior

When you enter a casino, you will be bombarded by bells and whistles calling you drop everything and spend. According to a new study in JNeuroscithis attention-grabbing behavior can be by design. Researchers from the University of British Columbia found that ding-ding-ding of catchy sounds and the bright lights are hard for us to resist and can encourage risky decision-making.

Sound and light encourage you to play despite odds

Whether or not you open your wallet to gamble your luck may have more to do with what you see and hear than how much you really want to spend, the researchers suggest. They first noticed that rats would engage in riskier behavior to get their food when the risk came with flashing lights and jingles. They wanted to see if we humans had the same compulsion.

Turns out, we do. When the researchers invited more than 100 adults to play gambling games in a lab that mimicked the behavior of real slot machines in casinos, they found that using imagery of big bills and typical casino jingles influenced individuals’ choices.

“Using eye-tracker technology, we were able to see that people were paying less attention to information about the odds of winning on a particular gamble when money imagery and casino jingles accompanied the wins,” Catharine Winstanley, one of the study’s authors, said in a statement. “We also noted that participants showed greater pupil dilation, suggesting that individuals were more aroused or engaged when winning outcomes were paired with sensory cues.”

The auditory cues were so stimulating, that participants would spend less time processing probability odds on their screen. When the participants did not have to deal with the extra sights and sounds, they showed more restraint in gambling.

If you have ever lost hours of your day to refreshing social media feeds on your phone, you can see how this attention-grabbing behavior can be applied beyond casinos. Technology’s most addictive qualities — pull-to-refresh features, red blinking alerts on Slack and Facebook messages, for example — are known to create urgency biases that make us want to drop everything and click. When design features resemble addictive slot machines, our restraint can be overpowered before we even realize what is happening.