Turning over a new belief: The psychology of superstition
According to Stuart Vyse in his book Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, 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, as well as a belief in astrology, the occult, the paranormal, or ghosts. It was reported by Colin Campbell in the British Journal of Sociology, that approximately one third of the U.K. population are superstitious. The most often reported superstitious behaviours are (i) avoiding walking under ladders, (ii) touching wood, and (iii) throwing salt over one’s shoulder.
My background is in the gambling studies field, so as far as I am concerned, no superstitions are based on facts but are based on what I would call ‘illusory correlations’ (e.g., noticing that the last three winning visits to the casino were all when you wore a particular item of clothing or it was on a particular day of the week). While the observation may be fact-based (i.e., that you did indeed wear a particular piece of clothing), the relationship is spurious.
Superstition can cover many spheres such as lucky or unlucky actions, events, numbers, and/or sayings. A working definition within our Western society could be 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. In short, the fundamental feature underlying superstitions is that they have no rational underpinnings.
There is 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 gamblers – many of whom will have superstitions based on things that have personally happened to them or to those they know well. Again, these may well be fact-based but the associations they have experienced will again be illusory and spurious. Most individuals are basically rational and do not really believe in the effects of superstition. However, in times of uncertainty, stress, or perceived helplessness, they may seek to regain personal control over events by means of superstitious belief.
One explanation for how we learn these superstitious beliefs has been suggested by the psychologist B.F. Skinner and his research with pigeons. He noted in a 1948 issue of the Journal of Experimental Psychology, that while waiting to be fed, pigeons adopted some peculiar behaviours. The birds appeared to see a causal relationship between receiving the food and their own preceding behaviour. However, it was merely coincidental conditioning. There are many analogies in the human world – particularly among gamblers. For instance, if a gambler blows on the dice during a game of craps and subsequently wins, the superstitious belief is reinforced through the reward of winning. Another explanation is that as children we are socialized into believing in magic and superstitious beliefs. Although many of these beliefs dissipate over time, children also learn by watching and modelling their behaviour on that of others. Therefore, if their parents or peers touch wood, carry lucky charms, and do not walk under ladders, then children are more likely to imitate that behaviour, and some of these beliefs may be carried forward to later life.
In a paper published in Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, Peter Darke and Jonathan Freedman (1997) suggested that lucky events are, by definition, determined entirely by chance. However, they go on to imply that, although most people would agree with this statement on an intellectual level, many do not appear to behave inaccordance with this belief. In his book Paradoxes of Gambling Behaviour, Willem Wagenaar (1988) proposed that in the absence of a known cause we tend to attribute events to abstract causes like luck and chance. He goes on to differentiate between luck and chance and suggests that luck is more related to an unexpected positive result whereas chance is related to surprising coincidences.
Bernard Weiner, in his book An Attributional Theory of Motivation and Emotion, suggests 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. Ellen Langer argued in her book The Psychology of Control that a belief in luck and superstition cannot only account for causal explanations when playing games of chance, but may also provide the desired element of personal control.
In my own research (with Carolyn Bingham) into superstition among bingo players published in the Journal of Gambling Issues, it was clear that a large percentage of bingo players we surveyed reported beliefs in luck and superstition. However, the findings were varied, with a far greater percentage of players reporting everyday superstitious beliefs rather than beliefs concerned with bingo. Whether or not players genuinely believed they had control over luck is unknown. Having superstitious beliefs may be simply part of the thrill of playing.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Campbell, C. (1996). Half-belief and the paradox of ritual instrumental activism: A theory of modern superstition. British Journal of Sociology, 47(1), 151–166.
Darke, P. R., & Freedman, J. L. (1997). Lucky events and beliefs in luck: Paradoxical effects on confidence and risk-taking. Personality & 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. Located at: http://jgi.camh.net/index.php/jgi/article/view/3680/3640
Langer, E. J. (1983). The psychology of control. London: Sage.
Skinner, B. F. (1948). “Superstition” in the pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168–172.
Thalbourne, M.A. (1997). Paranormal belief and superstition: How large is the association? Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 91, 221–226.
Vyse, S. A. (1997). Believing in magic: The psychology of superstition. New York: Oxford University Press.
Wagenaar, W. A. (1988). Paradoxes of gambling behaviour. London: Erlbaum.
Weiner, B. (1986). An attributional theory of motivation and emotion. New York: Springer-Verlag
The beliefs are falling: The illusion of control in gambling
For the professional gambler, being in control of the situation is paramount. However, one of the psychological ploys that the gaming industry likes to exploit is the fact that gamblers often perceive they have more control than they have in actuality. Probably one of the most single influential contributions to the psychology of gambling was Ellen Langer’s series of experiments on the illusion of control in the 1970s. Her theories were based on the observations that some people treat chance events as controllable. For instance, it isn’t uncommon for dealers and croupiers who experience runs of bad luck to lose their job. Back in the 1960s, sociologists studying craps players noticed those throwing the dice behaved as if they were controlling the outcome of the toss. Typically, craps players threw the dice softly for low numbers and hard for high numbers. In a follow-up experimental investigation, psychologists showed that when playing with dice, people bet less money and were less confident if asked to bet after someone else had thrown the dice rather than throwing it themselves, even though the probability of success was the same in both situations. Ellen Langer argued that these behaviours are totally rational if gamblers believed their game was a game of skill.
The “illusion of control” was defined by Langer as being “an expectancy of a personal success inappropriately higher than the objective probability would warrant.” Put simply, gamblers think they have more chance of winning than they actually do. She tested for this in a series of experimental studies that supported her original idea (that under some circumstances, gamblers will produce skill orientations towards chance events). Langer’s experiments convincingly showed that players bet more when playing cards against a ‘nervous’ competitor than against a ‘confident’ one. She also demonstrated that players would sell previously bought lottery tickets for a higher price if they had picked the numbers themselves as opposed to having them picked by someone else. Her other groundbreaking experiments showed that certain factors such as the nature of the competition, the familiarity of the task, and the degree of personal involvement influence the belief that skill is a controlling force, stimulates the illusion of control, and produces skill orientations. In a later study involving the prediction of ‘heads’ or ‘tails’ after a coin was tossed, she also showed that early wins during chance games induced a skill orientation even though the activity was totally chance determined.
Many regular gamblers (such as roulette players) passionately believe their game is skill-based, and offer explanations of why they failed to win when their number doesn’t come up. Such beliefs have been tested experimentally by US psychologist Thomas Gilovich in a study of the biased evaluations in gambling behaviour. In three studies using people who bet on football games, Gilovich demonstrated that gamblers transformed their losses into ‘near wins‘. Gamblers pinpointed random or ‘fluke’ events that contributed to a loss but were unaffected by identical events that contributed to a win. I’m sure you can all think of instances like this when watching football. When your team loses, it’s not uncommon to berate the referee for a dodgy penalty decision or deride the linesman because he failed to spot an offside. You may end up blaming your team’s loss on one particular event. Had your team won with the dodgy decision going your team’s way, you would probably rationalise it and say your team would have won anyway because of their superior playing ability and skill. Gilovich also reported that gamblers spent more time discussing their losses and discounting them. For example, after a loss, a lot of time may be spent analysing a small incident of a few seconds duration even though the game lasted 90 minutes. What’s more, we make ourselves feel better by blaming the loss on something or someone external. Interestingly, exactly the same effects have been found in gambling activities in which losses could not easily be explained away (such as Gilovich’s experiments using computerised bingo gambling).
Many psychologists have consistently highlighted the irrational perceptions people produce while gambling. Many studies have evaluated the cognitive activities of gamblers while they play on slot machines or roulette using the ‘thinking aloud’ method. This basically involves getting gamblers to think aloud while they are gambling. Typical results have shown that erroneous and irrational perceptions of the gambling activity far outnumber the logical and rational perceptions. In these situations, gamblers attribute their success to personal factors such as skill whereas external factors (like bad luck) account for losses. For instance, in my own research on slot machine gamblers, I found that when slots players were winning they would attribute their success to their playing strategy and skill. When they lost it was because of something external in the gambling environment. For example, someone had put them off by talking to them or watching them while gambling. Similar findings have reproduced by psychological experiments in Canada, Australia and the USA (including some of my own). The illusion of control is just one of the many ways in which a gambler distorts the perceptions of their gambling. These are sufficient enough to show that psychological factors can influence the way in which people gamble and continue to gamble.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Coventry, K. & Norman, A. (1998). Arousal, erroneous verbalizations and the illusion of control during a computer generated task. British Journal of Psychology, 89, 629-645.
Gilovich, T. (1983). Biased evaluation and persistence in gambling. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 1110-1126.
Gilovich, T. & Douglas, C. (1986). Biased evaluations of randomly determined gambling outcomes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 22, 228-241.
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.
Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Is ‘loss of control’ always a consequence of addiction? Frontiers in Psychiatry, 4, 36. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00036
Griffiths, M.D. & Wood, R.T.A. (2001). The psychology of lottery gambling. International Gambling Studies, 1, 27-44.
Henslin, J. (1967) Craps and magic. American Journal of Sociology, 73, 316-330.
Langer, E. J. (1975). The illusion of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 311-328.
Langer, E.J. & Roth, J. (1975). The effect of sequence outcome in a chance task on the illusion of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 951-955.
Rogers, P. (1988). The cognitive psychology of lottery gambling: a theoretical review. Journal of Gambling Studies, 14, 111-134.
Rogers, P. & Webley, P. (2001). It could be us! Cognitive and social psychological factors in UK National Lottery play. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 50, 181-199.
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.
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
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 Psychology, 114, 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 Differences, 37, 1533-1541.