Surprise Results Can Lead to Surprising Reactions

Surprise Results Can Lead to Surprising Reactions

The scenario plays out in casinos every day: A gambler gets a big, unexpected payout and faces the inevitable choice—quit now or keep it up?

Case Western Reserve University psychology professor Heath Demaree, PhD, wanted to see how most people react in such situations. Working with colleagues in Massachusetts and North Carolina, Demaree managed experiments involving nearly 150 college students playing several computerized gambling games.

The gamblers, he says, were more likely to quit after a stunning win or loss than they were to continue pushing their luck. In other words, it’s not whether you win or lose, but how unexpected the outcome.

“There is a long line of research demonstrating that emotion influences risk-taking,” he says. “Our research adds to that literature by showing that one discrete emotion—surprise— may decrease a person’s tendency to take risks.”

Studies have shown, Demaree says, the element of surprise results in immediate freezing, slowed action response and improved processing of memory. This study, which monitored the actions and emotions of students gambling with fictitious money, showed an additional result—surprise wins or losses lead to a lower likelihood of continued risk-taking.

“Unexpected events appear to cause people to reduce their risk-taking propensities,” Demaree says. “This is intuitively pleasing because unusual events require people to update their schemas of how the world works and, until their schemas have been sufficiently updated, people may be best-served by forgoing risk.”