The Psychology of Gambling

The house always wins. It’s a well-known saying about a well-known truth – the casino always has the edge and the player – luck notwithstanding – will always lose over the long term. So why do we continue to gamble? Why are casinos such prime destinations for those looking to try their luck and maybe walk away with more money than they arrived with? Why are online casinos such a booming industry?

There have been countless studies on the reasons why people are so drawn to games of chance and just as many theories have been proposed. Some speak to our need for entertainment. Some look at the risk-taking behaviour that seems to be built into our DNA. Others mention chemical changes in our brains. CasinoPlay took a look at what makes a gambler and these seem to be the most popular reasons for humanity’s love of gaming.

Why do we gamble?

As mentioned above, there are hundreds of studies that have attempted to make sense of our love of gambling. The most common traits, according to psychologists, come down to humankind’s innate confidence, the chemical reactions within our brains, pattern recognition, our aversion to loss and our need to fit in to society.

Illusion of Control

As a species, we are hardwired to be over-confident. If we feel that we have an edge, a bit of knowledge that no-one else has, we ignore the obvious in order to make an ‘educated guess’. This innate confidence, this refusal to admit that we might not actually know what we think we know, leads to risky behaviour. This is called the Illusion of Control, the often-mistaken belief that we can use skill or knowledge to affect a positive outcome, to control a situation. Players at land-based or online casinos tend to gamble more often and with higher stakes when they feel they are in control. Two big contributors to the Illusion of control are near misses and personal choice.

Near misses

These are those times when the ball lands next to your number on the roulette wheel, or the wheel stops just before the progressive jackpot symbols line up or your lotto ticket is just a number short for the big payout. These near misses give gamblers the false confidence that they are THIS CLOSE to winning. One more hand, one more spin, will make all the difference.

Personal choice

The second factor in the Illusion of Control is personal choice. When gamblers are given the opportunity to play an active role in the game, rolling the dice in craps for example, or choosing their numbers in the lottery, they feel they have a greater amount of control over the outcome and that their skill is what will turn the game in their favour.

These two characteristics, especially if they are present at the same time, usually lead to taking greater risks, playing for longer and placing bigger bets.

A natural high

There are also physiological changes that take place in gamblers when they are playing their chosen games. We have an area in our brains called the striatum – in the subcortical basal ganglia (the centre) of the brain – that is a critical component of the motor and reward systems that control our actions. Research on brain function has shown increased activity in this area when players are gambling.

The striatum is primarily associated with motor functions and cognition, reward, reinforcement, motivation, inhibitions and impulse control. You can see where this is going can’t you? All these aspects of our physiology are intimately associated with gambling – and with addiction.

Stimulating the striatum leads to the release of chemicals like adrenalin and dopamine that make us feel good, the same chemicals that certain drugs like cocaine stimulate or emulate.

The Gambler’s Fallacy

The Gambler’s Fallacy is a famous theory as to why gamblers continue to gamble even when they know the risks. According to the theory, gamblers will (wrongly) believe that something will happen because of something that happened before. For example, a craps player may believe that the next dice roll will be a six because there haven’t been a lot of sixes thrown before in the game. Another example would be a roulette player putting a big bet on red because the previous spins have all come up black. It’s a mistaken belief in the law of probabilities and possibly goes back to our hunter-gatherer days where pattern recognition helped us avoid danger or find favourable and rewarding items in our environment.

The Gambler’s Fallacy is also closely related to our chemical responses as, if we do get a positive outcome and win on our bet, the behaviour releases dopamine and adrenalin and reinforces our belief in the fallacy.

The biggest problem with the Gamble’s Fallacy and with attributing the law of probabilities to the gambling world is that there are no patterns. Gambling is purely dependent on luck or chance.

Aversion to Loss

This may seem counter-intuitive on a first look but humans have an in-built aversion to losing. So why do we gamble knowing that the chances of losing are high? It’s not so much about choosing to gamble as it is about refusing to walk away after a loss and what games we choose to play.

Our frustration at losing leads to us placing another bet – sometimes a higher bet – in the belief that we will win the next spin or hand and counter the loss or even better the loss. Losing is not something any of us enjoy and so we chase the win rather than setting for the loss. This is also known as ‘loss chasing’.

Our aversion to loss also guides our choice of games. Women in general for example have a higher aversion to loss than men and this leads to more women playing solitary games like slots where their losses are not on public display. Men, with a generally lower aversion to loss, play games like poker where their belief in their skills overcome their fear of losing (which is also related to Illusion of control).

The Social Aspect

Gambling also has a very social side. Whether you’re playing a game of cards with friends or visiting a land-based casino or playing Live Dealer online games, the presence of like-minded people, people who share your passion for gambling, reinforces the gambling behaviour. We seek out those who reflect our own likes and gamblers are, in general, quite a social bunch.

Gambling helps us put aside the mundane aspects of life and get a bit of glamour and excitement going. This is particularly important when it comes to how the media portray high-end gambling – glamorous, ritzy, exciting, extravagant. This image of the rich and famous playing with wads of cash and stacks of chips while sipping champagne and dressing in the hautest of couture gives us a sense of gamblers being a part of a high-end social strata, one that we really can see ourselves being a part of every time we visit the casino.

So, is it all in our head?

The psychology of gambling, just like any other human-related theory, really does only scratch the surface of the reasons why gambling is so popular. Every person is different and every person has different motivations. This is why you can find gamblers who only play for fun and gamblers who play to make profit above all else. It’s why some gamblers can play for an hour and why others cannot tear themselves away.

It helps to understand why we do the things we do but we really must look within ourselves to find our motivations. At CasinoPlay we are passionate and dedicated gamblers but we do it for the love of the games. We urge you to play responsibly and not to get caught up in loss chasing or in the chemical thrill that stops you playing responsibly and could affect your life.

Winners know when to walk away and come back to play another day.