Luck’s familiar: What is the role of luck in gambling?

Gambling and luck have long been inextricably intertwined yet there has been surprisingly little empirical research. Luck has a mysterious quality and the degree to which people believe in it has profound personal, political, and financial outcomes. Historically, luck was considered a gift of the gods, to be given or withheld at their whim. Despite the relative lack of research, there are countless everyday examples of the association between gambling and luck including the use of lucky charms to the saying lucky phrases. In fact, it could perhaps be argued that there are not many gamblers who don’t subscribe to some sort of belief in fortune. Nowadays, despite statistical laws governing coin tossing, dice throwing, or the spin of the roulette wheel, many gamblers still believe the odds can be overcome by having “Lady Luck” on their side.

In our everyday experience it can seem that some people “have all the luck” and others appear to be jinxed. We can all think of lucky people who seem to be in the right place at the right time, meet the right people, win all the money at the gaming tables, and go from one success to another. I read a news story on the Internet highlighting that luck is indeed about being in the right place at the right time. The story concerned a waitress at a Las Vegas casino who won $35 million during her lunch break. After playing for 15 minutes, she won the largest slot jackpot payout ever. However, only three months later, her car was hit by a drunk driver who had 17 previous arrests for drunk driving. She was seriously injured and her older sister was killed. This time she was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When people experience long winning or losing streaks while gambling they then evoke what they believe to be a second causal factor – luck. While luck tends to even itself out over the long run, people naturally focus on the short run and on their fluctuations. Because gambling involves randomness, people will often blame or chalk up their luck to some random event that coincided with how they fared at a certain gambling session. A lucky person is someone who wins many times in succession. The same will happen when it is a gambler’s lucky day with their lucky number, lucky colour, lucky table and/or lucky dealer. Most of these ‘lucky’ events are little more than ‘illusory correlations’ such as noticing that the last three winning visits to the casino were all when the gambler wore a particular item of clothing or it was on a particular day of the week. In short, “good luck” brings longer sequences of winning and “bad luck’ brings longer sequences of losing. People tend to assume that these winning or losing streaks are operating independent of chance. Taken from this perspective, luck and chance are two different but occasionally interfering causal factors that influence events.

Given people’s widespread beliefs about luck, there has been relatively little psychological research. Over 20 years ago, the Dutch psychologist Willem Wagenaar noted that the notion of causelessness is so alien to us that in the absence of a known cause we tend to attribute events to imaginary causes like luck and chance. Being lucky and winning while gambling are often perceived as very similar things. Furthermore, in the minds of many people, luck and chance often seem to act as real causes. Such notions are defined in terms of absence of knowledge on which the prediction of future events could be based. The throw of a dice, the spin of a slot machine or roulette wheel, are considered to be chance events because there is insufficient knowledge to predict the outcome – not because they have no physical causes.

Professor Richard Wiseman at the University of Hertfordshire has spent many years studying luck and believes he’s discovered four principles of luck and knows how to help people improve their good fortune. The results of this work reveal that people are not born lucky. Instead, lucky people are unconsciously using four basic principles to create good fortune in their lives. These could also be applied to gambling situations. Wiseman’s research has involved him being with those who define themselves as either lucky or unlucky, and examining the reasons why. Wiseman started by asking randomly chosen UK shoppers whether they had been lucky or unlucky in several different areas of their lives including their careers, relationships, home life, health, and financial matters. Of those he surveyed, 50% considered themselves lucky and 16 percent unlucky. Those lucky or unlucky in one area were more likely to report the same in other areas. Most experienced either consistent good or bad fortune. Professor Wiseman therefore that concluded luck could not simply be the outcome of chance events.

So what do lucky people do that is different from unlucky people? Firstly, lucky people maximise chance opportunities. They are skilled at creating, noticing and acting upon chance opportunities. They do this in various ways, including networking, adopting a relaxed attitude to life and by being open to new experiences. Secondly, lucky people listen to lucky hunches. They make effective decisions by listening to their intuition and gut feelings. For example, they take steps to actively boost their intuitive abilities by meditating and clearing their mind of other thoughts. Thirdly, lucky people expect good fortune. They are certain that the future is going to be full of good fortune. These expectations become self-fulfilling prophecies by helping lucky people persist in the face of failure, and shape their interactions with others in a positive way. Finally, lucky people turn bad luck into good. They employ various psychological techniques to cope with, and often even thrive upon, the ill fortune that comes their way. For example, they spontaneously imagine how things could have been worse, do not dwell on the ill fortune, and take control of the situation.

So can “lucky” people win at gambling without trying? Professor Wiseman tested this proposition by getting 700 people to gamble on the National Lottery. The “lucky” participants were twice as confident of winning as the “unlucky” ones. However, results showed that only 36 participants actually won any money, and these were split evenly between the two groups. The study showed that being lucky doesn’t change the laws of probability!

Research has also shown that lucky people use body language and facial expressions that other people find attractive. For instance, they smile twice as much as the unlucky, and engage in more eye contact. In addition, they are more likely have a broad network of friends and take advantage of favourable opportunities. Lucky people view misfortune as short-lived and overcome it quickly. In short, self-fulfilling prophecies appear to affect lives. Those who expect to fail may not even try. Lucky people try to achieve their goals even when the odds are against them. Luck is not a magical ability or a gift from the gods. It is a mind-set, a way of perceiving and dealing with life. This is something that gamblers should know and try to apply to their day-to-day gambling activity.

Gamblers are great believers in luck. Dr Wagenaar found that gamblers are so wedded to their belief in luck that in some circumstances they refuse to improve their odds. For instance, in the game of blackjack, there is a well-known optimal strategy for not losing. But in order to win over the long run, a gambler must count the cards that have been played and calculate whether there are more high or low cards left in the deck. More high cards favour the player, so gamblers should increase their bets. More low cards favour the house, so gamblers should decrease their bets. However, Wagenaar’s research demonstrated that the vast majority of players do not do this.

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

Further reading

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

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Gambling, luck and superstition: A brief psychological overview. Casino and Gaming International, 7(2), 75-80.

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

Langer, E.J. (1983).  The Psychology of Control. London: Sage.

Wagenaar, W.A. (1988). Paradoxes of Gambling Behavior. London: Erlbaum.

Wagenaar, W.A. & Keren, G. (1988). Chance and luck are not the same. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 1, 65-75.

Wiseman, R. (2003). The Luck Factor. New York: Hyperion.

Wohl, M.J.A. & Enzle, M.E. (2003). The effects of near wins and near losses on self-perceived personal luck and subsequent gambling behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 39, 184–191

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 800 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 3500 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 6, 2012, in Gambling, Online gambling, Popular Culture, Psychology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Thanks for such a useful article, really i found some interesting facts to know. Hope to have more useful information about gambling in future post’s.

  2. That was an interesting post, thank you. I stumbled across this because I just wrote a blog post about superstition and after posting something I always like to see what others are saying about similar subjects. Your article is far more scholarly than mine, but then it would be with you being a doctor ‘n all. I also felt linked to your article because I work at a university too (in the South of England), and I lived in Las Vegas for a few years – actually during the time when the lady you referred to won big and then had the accident. How lucky that I should stumble upon your blog 😉

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