Out of charm’s way? Psychology, superstition and gambling

Hands up. How many of you reading this article are superstitious when you gamble? If you are, you are not alone. Even the most skilful of gamblers can hold superstitious beliefs. The fallibility of human reason is the greatest single source of superstitious belief. Sometimes referred to as a belief in ‘magic’, superstition can cover many spheres such as lucky or unlucky actions, events, numbers and/or sayings, a belief in astrology, the occult, the paranormal, and/ or ghosts. When it comes to gambling it’s probably best to view superstition as a belief that a given action can bring good luck or bad luck when there are no rational or generally acceptable grounds for such a belief.

Surveys suggest that around a third of the UK population are superstitious. The most often reported superstitious behaviours are avoiding walking under ladders, touching wood, and throwing salt over your shoulder. There’s also a stereotypical view that there are certain groups within society who tend to hold more superstitious beliefs than what may be considered the norm. These include those involved with sport, the acting profession, miners, fishermen and (of course) gamblers.

The majority of the population tend to have what are called ‘half-beliefs’. On the whole, people are basically rational and don’t really believe in the effects of superstition. However, in times of uncertainty, stress, and/or perceived helplessness, they seek to regain personal control over events by means of superstitious belief. This often happens in gambling situations.

The Dutch psychologist, Professor Willem Wagenaar proposed that in the absence of a known cause, gamblers attribute events to abstract causes like luck and chance. Professor Wagenaar differentiates between luck and chance and suggests that luck is more related to an unexpected positive result whereas chance is related to surprising coincidences. Other psychologists suggest that luck may be thought of as the property of a person whereas chance is thought to be concerned with unpredictability. Gamblers appear to exhibit a belief that they have control over their own luck. They may knock on wood to avoid bad luck or carry an object such as a rabbit’s foot for good luck. Another US psychologist, Professor Ellen Langer argued that a belief in luck and superstition not only accounts for causal explanations when playing games of chance, but may also provide a desired element of personal control.

So are gamblers really superstitious? Well believe it or not there have been surprisingly few studies that have examined this. A study that I carried out with Carolyn Bingham here at Nottingham Trent University examined the beliefs that players have regarding superstition and luck and how these beliefs are related to their gambling behaviour. In a study of over 400 bingo players we found significant relationships in many areas. Many gamblers reported beliefs in luck and superstition. However, a greater percentage of players reported having ‘everyday’ superstitious beliefs, rather than those concerned with gambling activity.

We found that 81% of bingo players had at least one superstitious belief. These beliefs included not opening an umbrella indoors (49%), not walking under ladders (55%), not putting new shoes on a table (60%), touching wood (50%) and not passing someone else on the stairs. However, only 10% of the gamblers were superstitious while actually gambling (with a further 13% claiming they were “sometimes” superstitious while gambling). This was reflected in such behaviours and beliefs as having a lucky night of the week (5%), having a lucky friend (4%), having a lucky mascot (6%), sitting in the same seat for luck (21%), believing certain numbers are lucky or unlucky (13%), and changing pens or ‘dobbers’ to change bad luck (29%). We also found that 27% of gamblers believed in winning and losing streaks.

When examining our findings in greater detail, we also found that the heaviest spending gamblers were more likely to be superstitious while playing bingo, be more likely to have a lucky friend, be more likely to have a lucky seat, and be more likely to believe that some numbers are lucky/unlucky. However, some casino gamblers consider that going on the same night with the same friends, or sitting in the same seat are not associated with luck, but merely part of a ‘familiar’ social routine. It’s clear that what some people deem as luck or superstition is not universal across gamblers.

Even if people don’t have strongly held luck and superstitious beliefs, there is some evidence that having these beliefs add more fun and excitement to the game being played (“It’s my lucky night”, “I’m on a winning streak”, “I’m in my lucky seat”, or “My stars said I’d win”). It’s clear that a large percentage of gamblers in our study reported beliefs in luck and superstition and that having superstitious beliefs may be simply part of the thrill. What we can’t say is whether other types of gambler would behave in the same way but my own observations in casinos throughout the world is that many skilful players have lucky charms and/or have superstitious beliefs.

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

Further reading

Darke, P. & Freedman, J. (1997) Lucky events and beliefs in luck Paradoxical effects on confidence and risk-taking. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 23, 378-388.

Griffiths, M.D. & Bingham, C. (2005). A study of superstitious beliefs among bingo players. Journal of Gambling Issues, 13, 95-107.

Keren, G. & Wagenaar, W. (1985) On the psychology of playing blackjack: Normative and descriptive considerations with implications for decision theory. Journal of Experimental Psychology114, 133-158.

Langer, E. J. (1983). The psychology of control. London: Sage.

Vyse, S. (1997) Believing in magic: The psychology of superstition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wagenaar, W. (1988) Paradoxes of gambling behaviour. London: Erlbaum.

Wiseman, R. & Watt, C. (2004) Measuring superstitious belief: Why lucky charms matter. Personality and Individual Differences37, 1533-1541.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and 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”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 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 2000 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 March 1, 2012, in Gambling, Games, Gender differences, Popular Culture, Psychology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. You’ve got an interesting article here, and I do believe you’ve identified a unique challenge in identifying where routine ends and superstition begins. It’s hard to say what a gambler really believes influences their luck, especially since there are so many things that are just part of the gambling culture (like having a pretty girl blow on your dice, or giving a chip to the dealer).
    On the other extreme, you could say that even sitting down at a chance-based gambling table is a sign of superstition; it implies that you believe that somehow you’ll be unusually fortunate today, despite knowing rationally that the house is certain to come out ahead,

  2. Here is some more research done on the subject. Very interesting article! http://goo.gl/fKvUkN

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