Psychology and Gambling

gambling psychologyEveryone who gambles, even recreationally, would do well to understand a little more about the psychology around it.

This can explain why we do the things we do, why we make bad decisions with our bets, and how we trick ourselves into believing something that might make us feel better, but isn’t actually helping us to maintain our bankroll.

Anyone who doesn’t believe psychology effects their gambling behaviour is deluding themselves, and it has been proven many times over.

If someone offered you this deal, what would you say?

  • “You give me £100 and I’ll give you £97.30 back.”

No way, right? But millions of people still play roulette, and given the game’s 2.70% house edge this is technically the exact same thing. Every time someone bets on the roulette wheel they are accepting this deal.

What makes us take the deal? Psychology. Because although we know the house edge is fixed against us and cannot be altered, luck is involved, and the chance to win money is overwhelming, especially if the stake is small and the prize is big, so people happily take bad deals every time they gamble. This is why the lottery is so popular; sure your chances of winning the big money are about 1 in 45 million (that’s 0.0000022222222222222225%), but it’s only a few quid and it could change your life.

The psychology of gambling is a gigantic topic and whole theses have been written on the subject by extremely well educated and academic people, so this article can only realistically skim the surface, but there is some fascinating stuff in here that could just stop you sabotaging yourself every now and again.

How Does Psychology Influence Gambling Behaviour?

woman on slot machine

There are a lot of factors that can influence gambling behaviour. Our brains are susceptible to hundreds of illusions, biases, fallacies and false beliefs, and not a single person on the planet is immune to them, however clever you think you are.

There have been countless studies on gambling which prove time and time again that our brains can be manipulated by the games we play, even though some people feel the effects much more strongly than others.

Even the psychologists and scientists that study this stuff for a living fall victim to tricks of the brain, so the best we can all do is to be aware of these psychological vulnerabilities and try to overcome them when we notice they are creeping in.

Some people are better at this than others, because even though we can all fall into these mental mind traps, everyone’s brain is different, so the way we all deal with the effects is individual to each person.

This is why some people can gamble their whole lives without issue and others can lose control; but as a race humans are generally quite predictable.

There are four main areas of psychology we can look at in relation to gambling:

Probability Fallacies

gamblers fallacyThis is essentially a mis-understanding of how probability works.

A player might convince themselves they are due a win, or that a game ‘wants’ to pay out, or that a number is hot.

A few examples include:

  • Gamblers Fallacy – The belief that the last result has an impact on the next (we have a whole article on this one because it is so common). So if a player has lost 10 times in a row on roulette they might start betting more believing that a win is more likely to come their way because they have lost so many times. Another example is a coin toss. Someone may believe that 5 heads in a row make the next outcome more likely to be tails, when in fact the chances of heads or tails are the same on every single flip regardless of what has come before.
  • Hot Hand Fallacy – This refers to the belief that someone can be on a ‘lucky streak’ or that a specific result is hot and therefore more likely to keep coming up. In a game of craps if someone rolls a 7 three times in a row, other players may start believing that is a hot number, or that the player is on a streak, when really it is just random chance. A player who believe that luck is somehow ‘with them’ may end up betting more to take advantage of this misguided belief.
  • Near Miss Fallacy – The belief that a near miss, a slot machine spin that was only one scatter symbol off triggering freespins for example, somehow shows you that chance is ‘trying’ to help you. This can make players think the result they want is just around the corner and encourage them to push on a little longer than they otherwise would have.

These are all mis-guided beliefs that fail to properly understand randomness. Instead, the brain is scrambling to make sense of something that can't really be made sense of by drawing parallels that don't exist.

Illusions of Control

illusion of control gamblingThis describes instances where a gambler mistakenly believes they can influence the outcome of a random event.

In games like blackjack there is an element of control, so it wouldn’t really apply here as much; but in games of chance like slots, roulette, and craps, players can convince themselves that they can improve some skill or knowledge set and thus increase their winning potential, attributing wins to their ‘ability’, and losses to bad luck or other external factors.

For example, an interesting study found that craps players would throw the dice harder when they wanted a higher roll than they would when they wanted a lower roll. There is no real way a player can control the outcome of a dice roll, although obviously the thrower is responsible for the result since they are the ones throwing the dice, but they can’t control it.

Despite this, an illusion of control told them that a harder roll would be more likely to give them a higher result, when all that was really happening was that they were swapping something they couldn’t control (the outcome) for something they could (the strength of the throw).

Another study asked subjects to predict the outcome of 30 coin tosses but didn’t let them see the flip. Instead, they were told the outcome of each toss. The results were fake, with some people told they had predicted more correct results at the start of the experiment, others towards the end, and the rest scattered throughout. All subjects in all groups were actually given a 50/50 split of right and wrong guesses, but where the correct guesses came was the key thing.

There were a few interesting findings - such as those told they had more correct guesses at the start estimated they had done better than the other two groups - but the part of this experiment that is most relevant is that at the end, 40% of participants thought they could improve their score with practice.

A coin toss is 100% random; no amount of practice can improve your ability to guess the outcome of each toss.

It’s also been shown that people will pay more for a lottery ticket if they can pick the numbers themselves than if the numbers are chosen for them, even though that can’t possibly make any difference to the eventual winning numbers. The illusion of control comes from the fact that they have a choice over the numbers; yes they can control the numbers on the ticket, but they can't control the outcome of the draw.

Selective Recall

win lose This is not specific to gambling, it happens to everyone all of the time.

It basically means that a person will remember a situation in a way that supports their beliefs, expectations and desires rather than the situation as it actually happened.

This occurs because our brains find it easier to recall these happy positive memories, so not all memories are given equal status in our mind.

It’s why a sportsman might think they have played better than they did, or an actor might believe their performance went down better with the audience than it really did. Or why your girlfriend thinks she did nothing to escalate the argument whereas you were completely out of order…

In gambling, this can manifest in a tendency to remember wins over losses – or at least over estimate your winning record – and therefore misjudge how well you are doing. This is an issue when the player stops paying proper attention to their bankroll because they think they are doing ok, only to get a shock when they stop and realise they are down a lot more than they thought.

Personal Attributes, Traits, or Rituals

lucky charmThe belief that luck is something that can somehow attach itself to a person or an inanimate object could be put in this category. Luck is not an attribute in the same way that something like intelligence or comedic ability is, but many gamblers consider themselves lucky or unlucky.

Many people have ‘lucky’ tokens of some sort; a keyring, a picture of a beloved relative, a special pair of pants. None of these have any bearing on the outcome of your betting whatsoever, however coincidental their presence has been in the past (this example probably ties into confirmation bias as well).

Superstitions or rituals like only hitting the spin button with your left hand, holding your breath while the roulette wheel spins, or muttering a prayer as you wait for the dice to land are other examples.

A lot of the time this stuff will come from a situation where the player had a big win. They will attribute that win to something that was perhaps specific about that day, maybe they had an untied shoelace, and try to re-create that situation the next time.

It is all completely unrelated of course, but our brains like making these connections, and it can be tempting to believe them in order to feel like you have a handle on the situation.

This is just a selection of the tricks our brains play on us, but there are many many more. They are human conditions that everyone is susceptible to, but gambling environments are an excellent place for them to rear their heads.

People with gambling problems will often display many of these behaviours, but perfectly healthy gamblers will fall into these traps too.

How the Brain Reacts to Gambling

gambling brain activityScientists still don’t understand a lot of what the brain does or how it manages to do it, but research has come far enough to be able to show us areas of brain activity using an MRI scan, and this has been used to study gamblers as they play.

Different areas of the brain are responsible for different things, like emotions, senses, breathing, etc. One of the key areas of the brain as far as gambling is concerned is called the Ventral Striatum, which is where dopamine gets released.

This is a crucial part near the centre of the brain responsible for reward-related behaviour, and since gambling is all about risk vs reward it gets a lot of action during a session of play. It is also activated by food and sex – so all the good stuff.

What is interesting here is that the anticipation of a win (and indeed a near miss) triggers almost exactly the same response in the ventral striatum as a win itself. This suggests that the enjoyment of gambling is not necessarily all about wanting to win, but wanting to play – for many, this is simply about escapism.

In gambling addicts, however, this can look different. Their brain activity can be muted compared to a healthy gambler’s, and there is a theory that their ventral striatums are underactive, meaning they have to work harder to achieve the same feeling of reward, which would in turn explain their addiction.

With many casino games getting thrugh a single round in about 30 seconds or so, this constant hit to the ventral striatum can lead to something known as Flow - you might call it being 'in the zone'. It's when you lose yourself in the task you are doing, which for our purposes would be gambling. It can happen in all sorts of situations though; binge watching a TV show, working on the garden, playing a video game or scrolling through social media - all of a sudden hours have passed in what felt like no time at all.

This is how some people can end up gambling for longer than they intended to, and a knock on effect of that can be that they spend more money.

Does the Casino Industry Use Psychology Against You?

psychological manipulation

It absolutely does, but only in the same way that fast food joints and tech advertising and everything else does. Any customer facing business is designed to attract as many customers as possible, it just depends on the industry and the product in question as to how exactly they do this.

You think KFC don’t know that the smell of all that fried chicken makes people hungry when they walk past, or that they haven’t studied colour psychology when it comes to their branding? A lot of fast food joints use reds and yellows in their signage, and it’s not coincidental.

Casinos are no different, which is why they dish out free drinks and food to people at the tables, treat high rollers like royalty, and deck the place out with flashing lights, colourful decoration, and uplifting sound effects.

They can also use psychology within the games themselves though.

Traditional casino games like blackjack, craps, and roulette are harder to use in this way because they have been around for such a long time and don’t lend themselves to too much reinvention. Sure, a lot of the psychological pit falls still apply and there are plenty of variations with slightly different rules or extra features and side bets, but they all still have the base game at their heart.

But online slots are a different beast all together, because new ones are released all the time and they can be programmed to behave in certain ways, and this lends itself to psychological manipulation.

Psychology and Online Slots

online slot psychology

You are perhaps familiar with the concept of a slot’s RTP, hit ratios, random number generators and things like that, and these are all calculated and brought together on a game by game basis to optimise player engagement for different types of player. This is the sort of work that goes into building the maths model when slots are developed.

One of the key decisions the developer has to make is how often the game should pay out and in what sort of quantities.

This needs to be carefully structured in order to meet the advertised RTP, but also to keep the target player spinning for as long as possible.

Psychologists call this:

  • Schedules of Reinforcement – How much you should reward a behaviour (gambling) in order to get more of it.

Over the years, it has been shown that if you want a behaviour to continue after you stop rewarding it you should be more unpredictable in your rewards. In other words, to get players to keep spinning even when they are not winning, the payouts should come randomly.

The technical term for this is a:

  • Variable Reinforcement Schedule – This teaches players that persistence is the key to being rewarded – you know the reward is coming, you just don’t know when.

A player who is rewarded in this way is statistically more likely to keep playing for longer, even when they are losing, than a player who is rewarded in a more predictable pattern.

A study from way back in the 60s tested over 300 players using machines that would pay out at various different intervals and then suddenly stop paying out at all.

Players who had been winning on every spin would stop playing soon after the rewards stopped coming, while players who had won only 1/3rd of time would play on much longer, thinking another win was on the way. The study also showed that an early win would keep players spinning longer.

Modern day video slots can’t control exactly how early in your session you win, if at all, but they can be designed to play in a certain way over a large number of spins.

For example, they can result in a lot of near misses – spins that are oh so close to being winners. This can trigger the near miss fallacy we talked about earlier. A 2001 study showed that if about 30% of spins are near misses then players will keep spinning for longer, because a near miss actually triggers the same part of our brain as a win.

Summing Up

Our brains, the games we are playing, and the gambling environment we are playing in are an extremely complex mixture of ingredients that all have some sort of impact on us and our gambling behaviour.

Inherent psychological conditions affect every single one of us every single day, but it is our own individual genetic make-up and personal situation that dictates what we do with them and, when it comes to gambling, whether or not they become a problem.

It is how the neurological, physiological, and cognitive elements of each person interact that influence our behaviour when at the casino, working alongside all of the biases/fallacies etc that all of us are prone to.  

It’s a complicated cocktail of chemicals and brain activity that we may never fully understand.

The psychology of gambling is still being researched by some of the greatest minds in the field, so there is a long way to go before we get to any final detination with this subject, if we ever do, and this article only touched on a few of the relevent issues. We haven’t even considered external factors like mood, emotion, personality traits, what effects substances like caffeine or alcohol might have, chasing losses, and so many other things.

Nevertheless, even a basic understanding of what is going on in your brain when gambling can help influence your decisions in the right direction, and understand the choices you are making.