Can Animals Also Take Risks? Some Insights Into Animal Betting

min read
French Bulldog’s sitting at a small round table playing poker
BetMGM Jun 14, 2023, 12:22 PM

How similar are animal and human thought and behavior? Recent research in self-control and social reinforcement by University of Kentucky psychology professor Thomas Zentall suggests fascinating parallels between the psychology of animals and humans. Research on animal gambling behavior and online casino games can now be connected, highlighting similar patterns and behavioral tendencies observed in both contexts. Take a closer look.

Talking About Gambling

Gambling refers to the fun of taking chances and placing bets in the hope of winning something exciting or valuable, such as money or prizes. It’s all about making uncertain choices and letting luck be a deciding factor. Whether it’s gaming options, hitting online casino slot machines, applying your gambling strategy or trying your luck with lottery tickets, gambling comes in many forms — adding an extra dose of excitement to the mix.

Pigeons Taking Risks

So how does this relate to animals? As part of his research, Zentall conducted fascinating tests on pigeons. He presented them with a test involving two options: the first, a guaranteed small amount of food pellets every time; the second, a 20% chance to win a big “jackpot” of pellets or nothing at all.

Surprisingly, the results of the experiment revealed that pigeons willingly took risks and chose to gamble, just like humans do. It appears that they derived enjoyment from the experience, suggesting that pigeons may have similar motivations as humans when it comes to taking risks and seeking rewards. However, there’s an important difference between human and pigeon gambling. As Zentall points out, “Humans often describe gambling as an enjoyable activity (entertainment) rather than as a chance to make money (or pellets.)”

Rodents Reel In the Wins

So, racing pigeons strategize, but what about rats? In a series of lab tests a group of rats mastered the art of gambling to the point where they could navigate a clever system of punishment and reward, just like seasoned human gamblers.

These furry little strategists wasted no time catching the gambling bug. It’s mind-boggling to see how quickly they picked up the tricks of the trade and dove headfirst into the world of rodent risk-taking. Given a choice between entering a maze through openings with many pellets or openings with few pellets, the rats soon realized that the former were misleading because they led to lengthy periods without food. As a result, they played it smart and adapted their gambling strategy, instead going for the safer bet and opting for openings with fewer pellets and punishments.

Dolphins Dive Into Taking Risks

Dolphins are more than just graceful swimmers — they’re also savvy gamblers. These incredible creatures can grasp the principles of gambling, calculate the odds and decide when to go big or play it safe.

Specially-trained dolphins became real heroes when they joined the military mission to locate mines at the battle-scarred port of Umm Qasr during the Iraq War. The training of these clever dolphins involved a twist of risk and chance. By tapping into their super sense of smell and using a win-lose system similar to the one used in the rat experiments, they learned the ropes — only, this time the stakes were raised.

At first, the dolphins seemed all in for taking big risks. But as the consequences got more intense and sonic weapons were used against them, their appetite for gambling against impossible odds dwindled. Looks like even dolphins know when it’s time to play it safe.

Said Major Andy Hopkinson, who headed the unit training the dolphins. “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.”

Primates Are Playful Punters

There’s more to humans and their connection with their closest furry relatives than just physical appearance. Like us, apes are born with a natural inclination for gambling. It seems all primates have that gambling gene tucked away in their DNA somewhere. In fact, while only a small percentage of human babies have this gambling gene, every single tested ape has been shown to have it. It’s like they were born to take risks and play the game.

Researchers Xiaomo Chan and Veit Stuphorn have conducted fascinating experiments on primates and gambling using chimpanzees born in the wild and bonobos from Congolese sanctuaries. In one test, they observed how long each ape was willing to wait for a larger reward when a smaller one was already available. In another test, the apes had to choose between a “safe” reward they could see (such as peanuts) and a hidden reward they couldn’t identify.

Interestingly, the two ape species displayed different behaviors but with some similarities to human behavior in an economic context. Chimpanzees were willing to delay gratification and wait for a bigger treat even though they knew they might lose both rewards if they waited too long. On the other hand, bonobos adjusted their behavior based on experience and stopped gambling if they consistently lost their rewards. This mirrors some human tendencies when it comes to making decisions and taking risks.

The Poker-Playing Chimpanzee

At their peak, animal gamblers are even able to hold their own against human competitors. One of the more crazy facts about gambling is the fascinating case of Mikey the Poker-Playing Chimp, who skyrocketed to fame and captivated audiences worldwide. He’s even played against some of the best poker players. After their 2006 game, pro player Marcel Luske said, “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.”

Cultivate Your Instincts at BetMGM

If you’re keen to act on your natural gambling instincts and play casino games, register at BetMGM. There’s a broad range of top-rated online casino games that you can experience at your own pace in a safe, secure environment. From online slots (many with animal themes) to blackjack, baccarat, roulette and live-hosted game shows, you’ve got a million ways to stay you entertained.

Actress Vanessa Hudgens flipping casino chips next to the text "The King of Casinos"
About the Author


Read More

Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.

Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.