Don’t get too distracted by the flashing lights when making a big decision.

Most seasoned gamblers are likely aware that casinos keep things bright so there’s little difference between night and day, which causes people to lose track of time. But new research says other stimulating effects encourage gamblers to take more risks, and also adds to the growing body of research on tactics both casinos and retailers use to get people to spend money.

Lights and exciting jingles at a casino can encourage a gambler to make risky choices, according to a study published this week in The Journal of Neuroscience, a peer-reviewed journal. Such stimulating features can promote problem behavior, researchers from the University of British Columbia found.

One hundred adults played laboratory gambling games outfitted with “bells and whistles” like the ones that signal winning on slot machines. Researchers found that these sensory cues can stimulate negative behaviour — like continuing to play a game even when the risk of losing was high.

“We found that an individual’s choices were less guided by the odds of winning when the casino-like audio-visual features were present in our laboratory gambling game,” said Mariya Cherkasova, University of British Columbia postdoctoral research fellow and the study’s lead author. “Overall, people took more risks when playing the more casino-like games, regardless of the odds.”

Eye-tracker technology used by researchers showed gamblers paid less attention to the actual odds of winning when they were distracted by pictures of money and musical beeps and tones. The gamblers’ pupils dilated more widely when they were tempted with these sensory stimulants, suggesting they were aroused by them. Without the bells and whistles, gamblers showed more restraint.

“Together, these results provide new insight into the role played by audio-visual cues in promoting risky choice and could, in part, explain why some people persist in gambling despite unfavourable odds of winning,” Cherkasova said.

Slot machines’ exuberant lights and music can lead players into thinking they’ve won, when actually they’ve lost. But when players are educated about how the machines mislead them, they’re less susceptible to being tricked, a previous study found.

Retailers also use tricks to get people to spend money

A similar phenomenon sometimes plays out in stores. Music is used to either keep people moving briskly through the store or to slow them down, depending on how busy they are, according to an analysis of big supermarkets by Casino.org. (They use other tricks too, like providing no free shelf space at the checkout, leaving no room to dump unwanted items.)

Our sense of smell also helps companies get us to part with our hard-earned money. A whoosh of warm air, a soft carpet, perfumed air and pleasant music make many shoppers feel at home, but new research has a theory why certain scents encourage people to open their wallets.

The research, “The Cool Scent of Power: Effects of Ambient Scent on Consumer Preferences and Choice Behaviour,” published in the January 2014 Journal of Marketing, carried out three laboratory and two store-based experiments. The researchers demonstrated that people spend more when they are in an environment with “warm scents” such as vanilla or cinnamon (as opposed to “cool scents” such as peppermint).

Some gamblers have bigger problems than flashing lights

Gambling addiction is a complicated problem, however, and flashing lights are not exclusively to blame, said Christine Reilly, senior research director at the National Centre for Responsible Gaming, a non-profit funded by in part by casinos that’s dedicated to scientific research into gambling disorders and their prevention.

“It’s not just automatic that when lights and sounds turn on someone becomes a gambling addict,” she said. “It may aggravate the conditions for some people, but you have to remember most people who have the disorder have other economic, social, and mental health problems.”

Gambling rewires the brain in a similar fashion to addictive drugs, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which classified pathological gambling as an impulse-control disorder.

Like hard drugs, gambling causes the brain to release the chemical messenger dopamine, which gives humans a wave of satisfaction and happiness. Eventually, the brain, exposed to frequent dopamine-stimulating chemicals, evolves to emit less dopamine on its own.

The drug addict slowly builds up a tolerance to the habit, needing more and more of the dopamine-stimulating substance to feel high. Gambling works in a similar way, according to the 2012 book “Addiction by Design,” by MIT professor Natasha Schull.

“What you have to remember is people get into trouble with all kinds of games, not just casinos,” Reilly said.

Article by Kari Paul, a personal finance reporter based in New York.