The Gaming Instinct

ALL classes of society, and the two sexes to about the same degree, are deeply interested in all forms of contest involving skill and chance, especially where the danger or risk is great. Everybody will stop to watch a street fight, and the same persons would show an equal interest in a prize-fight or bull-fight, if certain scruples did not stand in the way of their looking on. Our socially developed sympathy and pity may recoil from witnessing a scene where physical hurt is the object of the game, but the depth of our interest in the conflict type of activity is attested by the fascination which such a game as football has for the masses, where our instinctive emotional reaction to a conflict situation is gratified to an intense degree by a scene of the conflict pattern.

If we examine, in fact, our pleasures and pains, our moments of elation and depression, we find that they go back for the most part to instincts developed in the struggle for food and rivalry for mates. We can perhaps best get at the meaning of the conflict interest to the organism in terms of the significance to itself of the organism's own movements. Locomotion, of whatever type, is primarily to enable the animal to reach and grasp food, and also to escape other animals bent on finding food. The structure of the organism has been built up gradually through the survival of the most efficient structures. Corresponding with a structure mechanically adapted to successful movements, there is developed on the psychic side an interest in the conflict situation as complete and perfect as is the structure itself. The emotional states are, indeed, organic preparations for action, corresponding broadly with a tendency to advance or retreat; and a connection has even been made out between pleasurable states and the extensor muscles, and painful states and the flexor muscles. We can have no adequate idea of the time consumed and the experiments made in nature before the development of these types of structure and interest of the conflict


(751) pattern, but we know from the geological records that the time and experiments were long and many, and the competition so sharp that finally, not in man alone, but in all the higher classes of animals, body and mind, structure and interest, were working perfectly in motor actions of the violent type involved in a life of conflict, competition, and rivalry. There could not have been developed an organism depending on offensive and defensive movements for food and life without an interest in what we call a dangerous or precarious situation. A type without this interest would have been defective, and would have dropped out in the course of development.

There has been comparatively little change in human structure or human interest in historical times. It is a popular view that moral and cultural views and interests have superseded our animal instincts; but the cultural period is only a span in comparison with prehistoric times and the prehuman period of life, and it seems probable that types of psychic reaction were once for all developed and fixed; and while objects of attention and interest in different historical periods are different, we shall never get far away from the original types of stimulus and reaction. It is, indeed, a condition of normal life that we should not get too far away from them.

The fact that our interests and enthusiasms are called out in situations of the conflict type is shown by a glance at the situations which arouse them most readily. War is simply an organized form of fight, and as such is most attractive, or, to say the least, arouses the interests powerfully. With the accumulation of property and the growth of sensibility and intelligence it becomes apparent that war is a wasteful and unsafe process, and public and personal interests lead us to avoid it as much as possible. But, however genuinely war may be deprecated, it is certainly an exciting game. The Rough Riders in this country recently, and more recently the young men of the aristocracy of England, went to war from motives of patriotism, no doubt, but there are unmistakable evidences that they also regarded it as the greatest sport they were likely to have a chance at in a lifetime. And there is evidence in plenty that the emotional


(752)  attitude of women toward war is no less intense. Grey relates that half a dozen old women among the Australians will drive the men to war with a neighboring tribe over a fancied injury. The Jewish maidens went out with music and dancing and sang that Saul had slain his thousands, but David his ten thousands. The young women of Havana are alleged, during the late Spanish war, to have sent pieces of their wardrobe to young men of their acquaintance who hesitated to join the rebellion, with the suggestion that they wear these until they went to the war. Two American ladies who passed through the recent horrors of the siege of Pekin were, on their return, given a reception by their friends, and the daily press reports that they exhibited among other trophies `'a Boxer's sword with the blood still on the blade, which was taken from the body of a Boxer killed by the legation guards; and a Boxer spear with which a native Christian girl was struck down in Legation street." It is not necessary to regard as morbid or vulgar the action of these ladies in bringing home reminders of their peril. On the contrary, it is a sign of continued animal health and instinct in the race to feel deep interest in perilous situations and pleasure in their revival in consciousness.

The feud is another mode of reaction of the violent, instinctive, and attractive type. The feud was originally of defensive value to the individual and to the tribe, since, in the absence of criminal law, the feeling that retaliation would follow was a deterrent from acts of aggression. But it was an expensive method of obtaining order in early society, since response to stimulus reinstated the stimulus, and every death called for another death; so, finally, after many experiments and devices, the state has forbidden the individual to take justice into his own hands. In out-of-the-way places, however, where governmental control is weak, men still settle their disputes personally, and one who is familiar with the course of a feud cannot avoid the conclusion that this practice is kept up, not because there is no law to resort to, but because the older mode is more immediate and fascinating. I mean simply that the emotional possibilities and actual emotional reactions in the feud are far more powerful than in due legal process.


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Gladiatorial shows, bear-baiting, bull-fighting, dog- and cockfighting, and prize-fighting afford an opportunity to gratify the interest in conflict. The spectator has by suggestion emotional reactions analogous to those of the combatant, but without personal danger; and vicarious contests between slaves, captives and animals, whose blood and life are cheap, are a pleasure which the race allowed itself until a higher stage of morality was reached. Pugilism is the modification of the fight in a slightly different way. The combatants are members of society, not slaves or captives, but the conflict is so qualified as to safeguard their lives, though injury is possible and is actually planned. The intention to do hurt is the point to which society and the law object. But the prize-fight is a fight as far as it goes, and the difficulties which men will surmount to pull off" and to witness these contests are a sufficient proof of their fascination. A football game is also a fight, with the additional qualification that no injury is planned, and with an advantage over the prizefight in the fact that it is not a single-handed conflict, but an organized mle—a battle where the action is more massive and complex, and the strategic opportunities are multiplied. It is a fact of interest in this connection that, unless appearances are deceptive, altogether the larger number of visitors to a university during the year are visitors to the football field. It is the only phase of university life which appeals directly and powerfully to the instincts, and it is consequently the only phase of university life which appeals equally to the man of culture, the artist, the business-man, the man about town, the all-around sport, and, in fact, to all the world.

Answering to the bull-fighting, prize-fighting, and competitive games in cultural societies, we find among the lower races that fights are organized and carried on systematically for the benefit of spectators, from motives which must evidently be regarded as aesthetic rather than practical. A genuine provocation may be behind the conflict, but both the combatants and the spectators regard it as essentially sport. The Menangkabau Malays hold fights of the nature of duels on neutral territory once a week, paying a rental of 6 reals and 1 kupang. Only selected


(754) representatives fight, while the spectators cheer their men, and the women bring food and drink. When a man is seriously hurt, the fighting ceases, and differences are adjusted. On the island of Sumba hostile groups meet and engage in conflicts which are seldom bloody, and not really designed to be serious. The party receiving first a few wounds declares itself defeated, and a festival follows. Among the Botocudos of South America a song is sung by each side before the fight begins; and among the Tlinket Indians two combatants provided with wooden masks and thick shields decide disputes arising between groups, while the spectators applaud, sing, and dance, much as at our football games. A very striking expression of aesthetic interest in war is also found on the coast of New Mecklenburg, where tribes habitually hostile and cannibalistic meet peaceably by agreement one day in the year, and at the close of the day deliberately and painstakingly insult each other, with the apparent design of stirring up enough anger to last for another year

Finally, the contest becomes purely artistic among the Greenlanders and the Arabs, where disputes are settled by song contests. Among the Greenlanders the contestant making his opponent appear ridiculous and putting him out of countenance gets the applause of the public and the verdict; and his opponent is often so shamed that he leaves the community. Among some of the ancient Arab tribes two contestants placed their dispute before unprejudiced judges, along with pledges guaranteeing acquiescence in the decision. In this contest, called mufachara, the arguments were not in prose, but in poetry, and the decision was not given on the justice of the case, but on the merits of the poetry.

But neither fighting nor a show of fighting, nor its limitations in various forms of sport, exhausts the possibilities of interest bound up in the conflict principle. Even among animals we find different forms of cunning employed in the struggle for existence and in the more highly organized forms, with more perfect development of associative memory, deception plays almost as important a role as open force in connection with predacious activities. In mankind the memory and judgment


(755) are so enlarged, and the opportunity for suggestive effects is so increased through the faculty of speech, that to beat a man by superior cunning is more usual than to beat him by superior force, and the interest is no whit diminished by the preponderance of mental modes over physical. Indeed, the crafty Odysseus probably possesses for most minds greater charm than the swift-footed Achilles or mighty Ajax. And when both force and craft can be displayed in working toward an cud, we have the possibility of the fullest expression of human interest; and herein lie the richness and fascination of the fields of artistic and mechanical invention. It would be difficult to find in literature or on the stage a work of art in which the interest is not of the conflict type. How much, indeed, would the interest of literature and the fine arts amount to if we eliminated love and war ?

In the more primitive forms of art the action is simple and direct. In the lliad and Odyssey, in Beowulf, and in the romances of Lancelot of the Lake and Arthur, you either strike your enemy or lay a trap for him. Beowulf's death in conflict with the dragon, the quarrel of Agamemnon and Achilles over the captured women, the trick of the wooden horse, the cozening of Samson by Delilah and of Holofernes by Judith, represent the interests of the world when society was comparatively young, and represent the interests of the young in society nowadays. The efforts of Oedipus to escape Nemesis, the inability of Hamlet to cope with a situation which he did not approve, but which he did not well understand, the machinations of Othello, represent a preponderance of mental over physical action, but still there is no quantitative diminution of the conflict interest. Again, a characteristic change in art motif in the most recent times is an increasing emphasis of the social rather shall the personal encounters of the individual. In the stories of Boccaccio and Margaret of Navarre, and in the Italian and Spanish novels of the fifteenth century, there was a naive acceptance of social arrangements in principle, and merely an effort to elude the wives, husbands, and fathers who represented for the moment these principles; while in modern fiction and drama there is a


(756) calling in question of the social habits themselves; but in this case also the conflict interest makes the play.

In the field of mechanical invention, likewise, the object is to secure an advantage either over nature or over some form of life, and ethnological evidences bearing on the early condition of man suggest that his interest in finding out mechanical helps to his contests with man and animals was hardly less keen than his instinctive interest in the conflict itself. The preparation, in fact, of mechanical helps to overcome or circumvent an enemy or a wild animal may be regarded as a part of the conflict itself, and sustained by the same interest. The club, the throwing stick, the spear with the obsidian point, the arrow barbed and tipped with poison, the trap, the pitfall, are inventions worked out by the savage with something of the joy of victory in anticipation. All these contrivances implied a close observation of the habits of animals and of the qualities of plants and the properties of matter, as well as an analysis of the ways of men. The powerful spring-trap was not placed at random in the forest, but in the path by which the animal approached the water at night. The preparation of poison from snakes, the entrails of insects, putrifying animal matter, and from plants, involved accurate observation and the presence of ideas of causation. It is here, indeed, in this process of invention, that the human mind was expanding. The interests and mental traits which developed here, the desire to find out things, the curiosity which is indispensable to an organism which cannot afford to be indifferent to any new situation which contains (as any new situation must) possibilities of good or evil, are precisely the standpoint of modern scientific investigation. The investigations of Newton, Helmholtz, or Darwin are not so immediately convertible into social advantage, and the end is not so clearly in view, but the interest of these investigators is identical with the interest of primitive man in devising and making force appliances.

We have seen that our pleasure-pain reactions were developed as inevitable reflexes in connection with situations vitally good and vitally bad, and were doubtless pretty definitely fixed at a period of development before the species could be called


(757) homo sapiens. And as long as man was in a state of nature, following his instincts, roving, fighting, hunting, wooing, contriving, he was happy, or, at least, his activities were spontaneous and not irksome. The law of mental interest seems very simple: whenever there is a problem relating to the welfare of the individual the interest is unflagging. Pleasure and pain are dependent on the attention, and when, in connection with conflict activities, the attention is strained in the effort to control a rapidly changing situation, the physiological changes which we feel as emotions are concomitantly violent and rapid. The primitive, motor type of life evidently continued for an immense stretch of time, and it was but as yesterday, especially in the white race, that population became dense or game exhausted, and man found himself obliged to adjust himself to changed conditions or perish. Instead of slaughtering the ox, he fed it, housed it in the winter, bred from it, reared the calf, yoked it to a plow, plowed the fields, sowed seeds, dug out the weeds, and gathered, threshed, and ground the grain. This was disagreeable, because the problematical and vicissitudinous element was eliminated or reduced to a minimum. Under the artificial system into which he was forced to obtain his food, sudden strains were not placed on the attention, emotional reactions did not follow, and the activities were habitual, dull, mechanical, irksome. This was labor. But while the labor itself was disagreeable, its products represented satisfactions, and the habits of the race adjusted themselves to what was from the standpoint of the emotions a bad situation. Not all social groups made this adjustment, and many groups which did not doubtless perished, either naturally or in collision with those which did, and of the races surviving the natural races are notoriously averse to work. Not all individuals of our own race have made the adjustment, either. Tramps and criminals represent a repudiation of the new arrangement, and the rich man's son often shows how superficial are the race habits of industry, failing when the pressure is withdrawn; while the race in general, accepting labor as a fact, is nevertheless glad of the half-holiday or the evening, when in hunting or golfing, at the prize-fight or the theater, it may live


(758) through, in imitation or imagination, the instinctive, motor-conflict life of prehistoric times.

The industrial pursuits, then, represent artificial habits, not completely reinstating types of situation in connection with which emotional reactions were developed. Business and all industrial and professional occupations are more or less regular, monotonous, recurrent and re-recurrent; the same situation comes up again and again, and no problem is presented throwing a strain upon the attention and producing the physiological changes and the emotions serviceable to the attention in managing the problem. But some modern occupations are not irksome, and not all are irksome to the same degree; and an examination of them from this standpoint discloses a preference for those in which the element of uncertainty is pronounced, in which the problematical is present, or where, at least, the attention is intermittent. The modern business which, perhaps, involves the largest element of risk is referred to by Mr. Crump in these words: "Speculation in the stock market has almost irresistible attractions as a mere amusement, quite apart from its being a kind of occupation which is the most luxurious and exciting mode of making money." The risk is, in fact, excessive; the element of uncertainty in the problem cannot be controlled. Economically it is a business, in the sense that it has a value in fixing prices and promoting exchange; but psychologically it is gambling; with this important qualification that, in so far as the professional speculator gives his attention, perhaps during a period of years, to one class of stocks, and uses special wires and other private sources of information, he eliminates the element of chance, and is to that extent working. Again, the organizer or owner of a competitive business enjoys it. He is in conflict with others, his success is victory, his failure defeat, and his emotions are of the same quality as those experienced by the expert swordsman or the primitive warrior and hunter. The motor side of conflict is eliminated, but the strategic side is correspondingly developed, and there is no question that business may be so fascinating a pursuit as to compete merely in its pleasurable aspect with amusements properly so called. Many business-men


(759) are unwilling to quit business when there is, from an economic standpoint, no longer any necessity of remaining in it, and where there is every reason to quit it on grounds of health; and this is particularly true in this country, where in such connections as land, railroads, mining, manufacture, and trade, stupendous operations have been undertaken by daring and shrewd minds, or, to speak in sporting parlance, where the stake has been exceptionally high.

Similarly the so-called learned professions are preferred, partly because they involve sagacity, rapidly shifting attention, responsibility, serious problems, and sometimes great rewards. It must be acknowledged also that at present something of caste feeling enters into the choice of these professions, because they have historically become associated with leisure, influence, and social position, and are consequently in greater favor than some industrial occupations which present problems equally fascinating, and often more consonant with the powers of the youth who has chosen the more aristocratic profession. Politics is another illustration of the tendency of human nature to seek the more vicissitudinous pursuits, for political life involves little drudgery, and is, in fact, a series of problems, with rapid and violent emotional changes.

In the case of the dry-goods clerk or bookkeeper, however, as in all cases where the responsibility rests on someone else, the interest in the activity is slight, and is really not an interest in the activity as such, but in the activity as a means of getting along in the world, or of reaching a relation to the world where the activities are more spontaneous, and where, as persons of this class sometimes express it, you are your own master. The desire to get rich means, in fact, from this standpoint, that wealth is felt to be the surest means of freeing one's self from routine and of freeing the activities entirely from external restraint.

Another, somewhat nondescript, class may be made to include men whose natural opportunities or intelligence might have made them laborers in various industries—hewers of wood and drawers of water—but who, instead, have drifted into various occupations where there are possibilities of excitement, or where, at


(760) least, the mechanical and routine elements are absent, and there is no demand for a steady physical activity of the non-competitive type. Policemen, firemen, detectives, livery-stable and coachmen, barkeepers, and barbers are more or less valuable to society, and many of them are very hard workers, but their occupations differ from hard labor in affording considerable opportunity for sitting about and an occasional chance to see or join a fight or a game, to talk, or play the races.

And, finally, we have the extreme cases of the tramp and criminal, representing a failure to accept the social arrangements at all. There is either a congenital variational inability of the organism to adjust itself to the artificial habits of the race, or a failure in society to provide the proper suggestions in early life to the members of these classes; or, otherwise stated the defect may lie in the organism or in the educational system.

We are now, perhaps, in a position to understand how gambling comes to exist and why it is so fascinating. It is a means of keeping up the conflict interest and of securing all the pleasure-pain sensations of conflict activity with little effort and no drudgery; and, incidentally or habitually, it maybe a means of securing money—that is, potential satisfactions of all possible kinds, through the gains accruing to the winner. In gambling the risk is imminent, the attention strained, the emotions strong; and even where the element of skill is removed entirely and the decision left to chance, an emotional reaction analogous to the feeling in the genuine conflict is felt. From this standpoint the problem is not so much to account for the gambler as to account for the business-man. The gaming instinct is born in all normal persons. It is one expression of a powerful reflex fixed far back in animal experience. The instinct is, in itself, right and indispensable, but we discriminate between its applications. It is valued in war and business; it expresses itself in a thousand forms in the games of children and in college athletics; it is approved in such expressions as golf, tennis, and billiards, as a recreation for the man of affairs; but society justly condemns the exercise of the instinct aside from activities which create values. The value may be in the increased health and vigor which


(761) the business-man derives from recreation, or it may be in the creation of wealth by this same man in a competitive business but the gamester pure and simple is not regarded with favor by society, because he creates no values and is therefore parasitical and is besides a disorganizer of the habits of others.

The sporting class, like the criminal class, is not homogeneous, and a psychological description of one of its members would not necessarily apply to another. Any attempt to understand this class must also, as in the case of the criminal class, reckon with both the biological and the social factors. There are certainly men and races who adjust themselves with extreme difficulty to the conditions of industrial life, or not at all; but, admitting this, yet the particular life-experiences of many men are sufficient to determine whether they shall be members of the business world or of the sporting class. Psychologically the individual is inseparable from his surroundings, and his attitude toward the world is determined by the nature of suggestions from the outside. The general culture and social position of his parents, the ideals of the social set in which he moves, the schools he attends, the literature he sees, the girl he wants to marry, are among the factors which determine the life-direction of the youth. From the complex of suggestions coming to him in the social relations into which he is born or thrown he selects and follows those recurring persistently, emanating from attractive personalities, or arising in critical circumstances. The gambler is distinguished by no particular psychic marks from other members of society. There are among the bookmakers, card and confidence men, professional billiardists, and adventurers of Chicago men who by every psychological test have a very high grade of intelligence. They have excellent associative memories, capacity to see general relations amid details, to reach judgments quickly and surely, and to readjust themselves skillfully to changing situations. While there are in this class men of very ordinary intelligence, there are others who, under the proper conditions, would have taken high rank in the army, in education, in the ministry, in business and politics, and in literature and art; just as there are men in these professions who, in


(762) the absence of normal opportunities and copies for imitation, would have turned out card or confidence men, keepers of gambling establishments, or thugs. There is, in fact, psychologically no more a sporting class than there is a class of college men or a class of horse-breeders. The artist class, the business class, the sporting class, and the professional classes all contain a variety of psychic dispositions; they are, in fact, rather trades than classes. That this is so is well illustrated by the case of college men. Many of these find their way into college because of special aptitude, but still more, perhaps, are born with a chance of going to college. Their parents recognize that it gives them an advantage, and can afford to let them have it; and yet the fact of going to school, and especially to college, evidently predisposes a man to certain occupations, and pretty certainly closes others to him. He may very naturally become a teacher or physician, for instance, but he will hardly become a policeman, a pickpocket, or a farmer.

The instincts of man are congenital; the arts and industries are acquired by the race and must be learned by the individual after birth. We have seen why the instinctive activities are pleasurable and the acquired habits irksome. The gambler represents a class of men who have not been weaned from their instincts. There are in every species biological "sports" and reversions, and there are individuals of this kind among sporting men who are not reached by ordinary social suggestion and stimuli. But granting that what we may call the instinctive interests are disproportionately strong in the sporting class, as compared with say the merchant class, yet these instincts are also strongly marked in what may roughly be called the artist class; and in spite of a marked psychic disposition for stimuli of the emotional type, and precisely because of this disposition, the artist class has a very high social value. Art products arc, indeed, perhaps more highly esteemed than any other products whatever. The artist class is not, therefore, socially unmanageable because of its instinctive interest, though perhaps we may say that some of its members are saved from social vagabondage only because their emotional predisposition has found an


(763) expression in emotional activities to which some social value can be attached.

Or if again we consider the violence with which a game, the game of golf, for instance, may lay hold of the world in general, we see the ease with which the man of affairs and the scientist lapse from their acquired habits of industry into their instincts. What they are interested in as a recreation the sporting man is interested in as a constant thing. The members of the sporting class are not, in the main, abnormal to a degree which renders them socially unmanageable, but represent rather social and pedagogical neglect. The young man of good family when sowing his wild oats is temporarily a sporting man, following for the time the instincts of the race. But his connections are such that the dragnet of social habits is finally gotten around him and he is drawn into a reputable profession. In the case of the professional sport this has not happened. Most men profess, anyway, that they have found their occupations in life accidentally, and so long as this is so, it is not surprising that a number of men should miss the regular occupations altogether.

W. I. THOMAS.
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO.

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