The Effect of Priming on Gambling in Focus (2015) and Research

As I’m sure many of you are aware, this semester we spent time learning about priming and gambling in our larger discussion on how individuals make decisions. These discussions led me to remember a clip from a movie I saw a couple of years ago. The following clip is from the movie Focus (2015). The movie follows an unlikely duo and con artists played by Will Smith and Margot Robie. For context of this scene Will Smith’s character is trying to pull of his biggest con in years. If he succeeds he is expected to make millions. He and his team have picked out this wealthy man to profit from and set themselves up to try and con the man at the Super bowl. Prior to this scene, he has had the man participate in multiple bets, each one having more value than the first. With each bet the other man won, getting more excited about the gambling. The man begs to play one more bet, walking into the trap Will Smith’s character had set for him.

This clip illustrates what we’ve studied this semester, that priming can directly though subconsciously influence our decision making. Though dramatized and exaggerated for a film, the principle that we can be manipulated by unattended auditory and visual stimuli is completely true. Will’s character trusted this effect so confidently he used it to pull off a giant con.

Like the themes explored and inflated in the scene in the film, Focus. A study completed by the University of Warwick also examined the effect of priming on gambling behavior. During the study, participants were presented with four colored doors. The first group of three doors was paired with an image of cartoon fruit similar those that appear on slot machines. These doors had a guaranteed outcome of 0 points, 40, or 80. The fourth and final door had a 50% chance of a 20 point or 60-point gain. Occasionally, the fourth door was primed with cartoon fruit representing and reminding the participant of a past win or loss in the experiment. Being primed and reminded of the past win or loss then affected their choice.

The study concluded that when individuals were “reminded” or primed of previous wins they were 15% more likely to gamble and select the risky option. Additionally, being reminded of a loss did not change their gambling behavior. Dr. Elliot Ludwig states that this result is due to our memories being extremely influential in our decision-making process, even subconsciously. For example, he asserts that people do not take risks when the experience is completely new but will take risks if we have had previous memories of a similar experience. His research published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General noted that in casinos there are constantly stimuli priming an individual to be more likely to gamble. Stimuli like the whirring of a slot machine suggest that another person has recently won and thus this persuades the individual that they too could win. The unattended stimuli, the priming, convinces the individual to make the risky decision to gamble. This research and the clip from Focus demonstrate that the effects of priming on our decision making and behavior are often subtle but can have large effects.

4 thoughts on “The Effect of Priming on Gambling in Focus (2015) and Research

  1. avchamp

    I have to admit, a single movie clip, like the one you attached from the movie Focus, has never had me so shook before. I was so amazed about how easy it was for the guy to be primed by Will Smith’s character. Then they took it one step further and had Margot’s character (who was in the dark about the whole thing) primed to guess his number. On top of all that they even included gambling- another topic we discussed in class. This clip alone has so many cognitive dimensions of topics that we have gone over in class. I was completely mind-blown and now I am very intrigued. I have never seen this movie so that will be the first thing I do once finals are over! Thank you for sharing!
    PS. you said Will Ferrell instead of Will Smith a few times.

  2. linnis Post author

    I’m glad you liked the clip and the post held your interest! It is a very good movie I would definitely recommend it. Additionally, thank you for your correction! I read the post over many times and somehow missed that I had confused the two actors last names.

  3. mhowell3

    I find it intriguing and compelling the way you used Focus and gambling to connect to priming. It makes absolute sense and in a way even simplifies it to where if someone didn’t know the subject greatly they would still understand it. I also liked how you put in the clip from the movie to prove your point even further. This blog post helped with clarification immensely. The principle that people can be manipulated by unattended auditory and visual stimuli is fascinating. It would have been nice if you went into deeper details about why people make decisions based on their past experiences more. I feel like that could have been dwelled into deeper. It would also have been nice if you could have added a somewhat personal touch on it, to where you could bring in a personal example of priming in your life or possibly how you felt about priming.

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