Believing and deceiving: The power of positive thinking in the development of problem gambling

At the end of 2009, Dr Ryan McKay (Oxford University) and Professor Daniel Dennett (Tufts University) wrote an interesting paper on the evolution of misbelief. They examined the distinction between two general types of misbelief. Firstly, those resulting from a breakdown in the normal functioning of the belief formation system (e.g., delusions), and secondly, those arising in the normal course of that system’s operations (e.g., beliefs based on incomplete or inaccurate information). One area in which misbeliefs have been empirically examined but were not covered in that paper – especially in relation to the second type of misbelief – is in the area of problem gambling and gambling addiction. Today’s blog therefore examines the evolution and role of misbeliefs in relation to cognitive biases and positive illusions (i.e., erroneous perceptions) of gamblers.

Research in the gambling studies field has shown that erroneous perceptions can result from both types of misbelief outlined by McKay and Dennett (i.e., either through some kind of break in the normal functioning of the belief formation system, and in the normal course of that system’s operations). Despite the fact that the odds of almost all gambling activities are weighted strongly in favour of the gambling operator, gamblers – and particularly problem gamblers – continue to believe they can win money from gambling. This observation leads to the conclusion that gambling may be maintained by irrational or erroneous beliefs. For example, people overestimate the extent to which they can predict or influence gambling outcomes and tend to misjudge how much money they have won or lost. This hypothesis has been confirmed in numerous studies (including some of my own published studies) showing that people overestimate the degree of skill or control that can be exerted in chance activities.

Using the arguments put forward by McKay and Dennett (2009) to re-examine the empirical gambling literature on cognitive bias, it could perhaps be argued that many of the kinds of erroneous perceptions displayed by gamblers (e.g., hindsight biases, availability biases, confirmation biases, illusory correlations, representativeness biases, etc.) comprise ecologically rational decision-making strategies that inevitably operate when there are limitations of time and computational resources (i.e., the “take the best” heuristic). Furthermore, it could also be argued that the misbeliefs shown by some problem gamblers at the height of their disordered gambling may as Autralian psychologist Peter Butler describes as a “defense against depressive overwhelm”. Here, certain delusions shown by gamblers might be serving as plausible defensive functions.

Some research I carried out with Dr. Jonathan Parke (Salford University) and Dr Adrian Parke (Lincoln University) examined the role of positive thinking among gamblers. We noted the previous research in health and clinical settings showing that individuals often employ particular cognitive strategies in the face of adversity or while experiencing negative affect. Such health-related studies have found that cognitive experience is involved in compensating for a negative emotional state. Furthermore, self-aggrandizement, an exaggerated sense of optimism and over-estimating personal control, are found to be key responses to threatening information (such as being told the patient has a life-threatening illness). These observations have shown that despite some incongruence with reality, these misbeliefs are correlated with good (rather than poor) adjustment to the illness.

Despite the history of positive thinking styles in the health and clinical arena, there had not – until relatively recently – been any research on this area in relation to gambling behaviour. Therefore, we set out to determine whether (after gambling) gamblers compensate and reduce negative affect by identifying positive consequences from experiencing a loss. We identified nine types of ‘positive thinking’ experienced by gamblers (comparative thinking, prophylactic thinking, biased frequency thinking, responsibility avoidance, chasing validation, prioritization, resourcefulness, thoughtfulness, and fear reduction). Gamblers who were positive thinkers experienced significantly less guilt about losing than non-positive thinkers.

Here, the positive illusions displayed by gamblers are (following McKay and Dennett’s arguments) accruing benefit from misbelief directly not merely from the systems that produce it. However, unlike the positive illusions outlined by McKay and Dennett, we argued that in the case of gambling behaviour maintenance, this is one type of behaviour where positive illusions have a negative detrimental effect over time and that unlike most other areas of human behaviour, are maladaptive in this context.

Why gamblers should consistently demonstrate these biases and where they come from is not so clear. It is also unclear whether use of positive illusions depends on intrinsic factors (e.g., psychological mood state) and/or extrinsic factors (e.g., gambling history). It has been suggested that persistent gambling behaviour is thought to be the result of people’s overconfidence in their ability to win money. While research regarding positive illusions in gambling may be lacking, research has found that gambling behaviour is facilitated when players believe they have control over the event and when they feel that they are “nearly winning” even in the event of a losing outcome. It should also be noted that the fundamental difference between heuristics and positive illusions is that heuristics operate to remove doubt, whereas positive illusions operate to remove negative affect created by the adverse consequences of gambling. By overestimating benefits and reducing guilt, positive illusions disrupt the naturally occurring contingencies of reinforcement that might otherwise prevent excessive gambling.

While reduction of negative affect may be perceived as positive in many other contexts, it is maladaptive in gambling behaviour (at least on an individual level). However, it also appears that such misbeliefs may have continued to evolve among gamblers despite individual detriment. This is because many of the same types of positive illusions appear to be displayed by gamblers consistently over time.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading 

Butler, P. V. (2000). Reverse Othello syndrome subsequent to traumatic brain injury.  Psychiatry: Interpersonal & Biological Processes, 63, 85-92.

Griffiths, M.D. (1994). The role of cognitive bias and skill in fruit machine gambling. British Journal of Psychology, 85, 351-369.

Langer, E. J. (1975). The illusion of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 311-328.

McKay, R.T. & Dennett, D.C. (2009). The evolution of misbelief. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 32, 493-561.

Parke, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Gambling addiction and the evolution of the ‘near miss’. Addiction Theory and Research, 12, 407-411.

Parke, J., Griffiths, M.D. & Parke, A. (2007). Positive thinking among slot machine gamblers: A case of maladaptive coping? International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 5, 39-52.

Taylor, S. E. (1989). Positive illusions: Creative self-deception and the healthy mind. New York: Basic Books.

Wagenaar, W. A. (1988). Paradoxes in Gambling Behaviour. London: Erlbaum.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. In 2013, he was given the Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 710 research papers, five books, over 150 book chapters, and over 1500 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 3000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on February 22, 2012, in Addiction, Gambling, Gambling addiction, Problem gamblng, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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