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Back to the ‘why’ fronts: A brief look at gambling motivation

In the three decades that I have been studying gambling, the question that I am most asked is ‘Why do people gamble?’ and variations on it, such as ‘Why do people gamble when most people consistently lose?’ All surveys of gambling have shown that there are a broad range motivational factors that are central to gambling, and that attitudes towards gambling are positively related to availability and cultural acceptability. However, this perspective fails to take into account many key findings and observations in gambling research. Surveys have also shown that not everyone gambles and some people gamble more than others (e.g., professional gamblers, problem gamblers). Research has consistently shown that people often gamble for reasons other than broad social and economic reasons. These other motivations may vary according to personal characteristics of the gambler and the type of gambling activity. Additionally, broad social and economic theories fail to explain why certain gambling activities are more popular or ‘addictive’ than others.

Variations in gambling preferences are thought to result from both differences in accessibility and motivation. Older people tend to choose activities that minimise the need for complex decision-making or concentration (e.g., bingo, slot machines), whereas gender differences have been attributed to a number of factors, including variations in sex-role socialisation, cultural differences and theories of motivation. Stereotypically, women tend to prefer chance-based games and men tend to prefer skill-based games. Even some games that are predominantly chance-based, men attempt to impose some level of skill. For instance, poker – which people regard as skill-based – has a massive amount of chance involved. Similarly, men often, in their own minds, change playing a slot machine from a chance-based event into a more skill-based activity via cognitive processes such as the illusion of control. The other factor to consider is that (in general) women don’t like it when other people see them losing. On a slot machine, no-one sees the player is losing so it’s very often a very guilt-free, private experience. Men, on the other hand, even when they lose big, there’s a machismo attached to it that says: “Yes, I’ve lost £500 but I can afford it.”

Variations in motivation are also frequently observed among people who participate in the same gambling activity. For example, slot machine players may gamble to win money, for enjoyment and excitement, to socialise and to escape negative feelings. Some people gamble for one reason only, whereas others gamble for a variety of reasons. A further complexity is that people’s motivations for gambling have a strong temporal dimension; that is, they do not remain stable over time. As people progress from social to regular and finally to excessive gambling, there are often significant changes in their reasons for gambling. Whereas a person might have initially gambled to obtain enjoyment, excitement and socialisation, the progression to problem gambling is almost always accompanied by an increased preoccupation with winning money and chasing losses.

Gambling is clearly a multifaceted rather than unitary phenomenon. Consequently, many factors may come into play in various ways and at different levels of analysis (e.g., biological, social, or psychological). Theories may be complementary rather than mutually exclusive, which suggests that limitations of individual theories might be overcome through the combination of ideas from different perspectives. This has often been discussed before in terms of recommendations for an ‘eclectic’ approach to gambling or a distinction between proximal and distal influences upon gambling. However, for the most part, such discussions have been descriptive rather than analytical, and so far, few attempts have been made to explain why an adherence to singular perspectives is untenable.

Gambling is one of those activities where people effectively can get something for nothing, which is why some people will take risks. The attraction of a lotter for example is that, for a very small stake, the individual can have a life-changing experience (and things are further complicated by the fact that most lottery players don’t see the activity as gambling). People who enjoy playing roulette or betting on a football match enjoy the betting or gaming experience itself. In short, each gambling activity has its own unique psychology (although there are undoubted overlaps).

Most economists claim that gamblers are primarily driven by the profit motive. However, the psychological evidence is overwhelming that other desires affect gambling actions. Put simply, for most gamblers, our actions contradict the desire to maximize profits. Whilst I am no Freudian, there appear to be a whole range of unconscious factors at play in gambling. For instance, if players make a successful bluff during a card game, it’s human nature to want to let people to know how smart they are. The golden rule in poker is never to give anything away but the human psyche works in such a way that we usually want to show off once in a while. Our psychological make-up also means that we let pride get in the way of minimizing losses. There are always games that should have been avoided but players end up staying in them long after they knew it was a mistake. None of us like to lose to who we think are weaker players, or admit that the game was too hard. How many times does a player continue playing because they want to try and get the better of a great player or show off because there is someone they are trying to impress? Although it’s a cliché, pride before a fall is commonplace. These short-term psychological satisfactions will almost always have a negative impact on long-term profits.

Because there are many non-financial types of rewards from many different sources while gambling, some people view losses as the price of entry. To these players (and I include myself as one of them), winning may be a bonus. However, most of us don’t like losing – and we especially don’t like persistent losing, regardless of whether there are other types of reinforcement. In the cold light of day, we are all rational human beings. In the height of action, rationality often goes out the window. I’ve done it myself at the roulette table and standing in front of a slot machine. While gambling I have felt omnipotent. It is only after I walk away penniless that the non-financial rewards are short-term and not worth it.

Understanding our own psychological motives is clearly important while gambling. Most players know the strategies they should be adopting but fail to apply them in real gambling situations. Players do not lack the information. It is far more profitable to learn why we don’t apply the lessons we have already learned, then ensure that we apply them. Until we understand and control our own motives — including the unconscious ones — we cannot possibly play to our best ability.

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

Further reading

Calado, F., Alexandre, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2014). Mom, Dad it’s only a game! Perceived gambling and gaming behaviors among adolescents and young adults: An exploratory study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, in press.

Griffiths, M.D. (1990). The dangers of social psychology research. BPS Social Psychology Newsletter, 23, 20-23.

Griffiths, M.D. (1999). The psychology of the near miss (revisited). British Journal of Psychology, 90, 441-445.

Griffiths, M.D. (2006). An overview of pathological gambling. In T. Plante (Ed.), Mental Disorders of the New Millennium. Vol. I: Behavioral Issues. pp. 73-98. New York: Greenwood.

Griffiths, M.D. (2007). Gambling psychology: Motivation, emotion and control, Casino and Gaming International, (3)4 (November), 71-76.

Griffiths, M.D. & Wood, R.T.A. (2001). The psychology of lottery gambling. International Gambling Studies, 1, 27-44.

McCormack. A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). What differentiates professional poker players from recreational poker players? A qualitative interview study. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 243-257.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Poker gambling virtual communities: The use of Computer-Mediated Communication to develop cognitive poker gambling skills. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 1(2), 31-44.

Parke, A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Beyond illusion of control: An interpretative phenomenological analysis of gambling in the context of information technology. Addiction Research and Theory, 20, 250-260.

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

Further reading

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.

Everyone’s a winner? The role of cognitive biases in lottery playing

Earlier this week, I was interviewed by the Metro newspaper about the psychology of playing the National Lottery.  One reader of the article had a somewhat sarcastic dig at me:

“I happened to glance through the Metro today, whilst waiting for an appointment, and noticed a feature on lotteries. It actually draws on Prof Mark Griffiths from Nottingham Trent University, to deliver this shocking statement ‘Prof Griffiths believes lotteries are a form of gambling’”

Out of context, the statement does sound somewhat banal. However, the point that I was making to the journalist was that many lottery players don’t believe that buying a lottery ticket is really gambling. Studies have shown that if you ask “pure lottery players” (i.e., those people who only play the lottery and don’t engage in any other form of gambling) if they gamble, a large proportion typically answer that they don’t. Lottery players often refer to their behaviour as nothing more than a ‘harmless flutter’. Given that very few people develop problems from weekly or bi-weekly lotteries is a fair and accurate comment. Other lottery players will claim that the activity is not really a form of gambling because the money goes to good causes (which while partly true) doesn’t negate the fact that playing the lottery is a form of gambling.

Over the years I have written many papers and articles on lottery play. In today’s blog I briefly examine some of the cognitive biases and heuristics that have been applied to lottery gambling (excluding the psychology of the near miss that I examined in a previous blog). Heuristics are usually defined as ‘rules-of-thumb’ (i.e. simple ‘if-then’ rules or norms). There are many heuristics (e.g., the illusion of control, the availability bias, the sunk cost bias, the representativeness bias, etc.) that may help explain why lotteries are so appealing to the general public – beyond the basic reason that playing the lottery provides the chance to win a life-changing amount of money (millions of pounds) for a low cost (typically £1). Although the following heuristics are not an exhaustive list, they do contain those cognitive biases and heuristics that are probably most salient to the psychology of lottery gambling:

Illusion of control: Ellen Langer, a very well know American psychologist at Harvard University, defined the illusion of control is an expectancy of success higher than the objective probability would warrant. In essence, her basic assumption was that in some chance settings (e.g., buying a lottery ticket), those conditions that involved factors of choice, involvement, familiarity and/or competition stimulate the illusion of control to produce skill orientations. These observations have been confirmed in both laboratory and natural setting based experiments. For instance, Langer’s seminal 1970s experiments showed that participants would sell previously bought lottery tickets for a higher price if they had picked it themselves as opposed to having it ‘assigned’ by someone else.

Flexible attributions: Flexible attributions are cognitive distortions in which gamblers attribute their successes as due to their own skill and failures as due to some external influence. Research by US psychologixt Thomas Gilovich (Cornell University) demonstrated that gamblers transform their losses into ‘near wins’ and spend far more time discussing their losses and discounting them while bolstering their wins. Professor Gilovich also showed that gamblers display hindsight bias (i.e. they are not surprised by the outcome of a gamble and report they predicted it after the event has happened).

Representativeness bias: The classic work on representativeness bias – by Israeli-US psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky – applies to random samples of data and is where people expect to find a representative relationship between samples drawn from the population and the population itself. For instance, when subjects are asked to create a random sequence of imaginary coin tosses they tend to produce sequences where the proportion of ‘tails’ in a short segment is closer to 0.5 than chance would predict. This particular mechanism may well explain the ‘gambler’s fallacy’, (i.e., the expectation that the probability of winning will increase with the length of an ongoing run of losses).

Availability bias: The availability bias occurs when a person evaluating the probability of a chance event makes the judgment in terms of the ease with which relevant instances come to mind. With regards to the lotteries, winners are often highly publicised. These both give the idea that wins are regular and commonplace when in fact they are rare. A vividly presented case study or example can make a lasting impression.

Sunk cost bias: Another factor that may be important in why lotteries have been so financially successful is the sunk cost bias (also known as entrapment). Entrapment refers to a commitment to a goal that has not yet been reached. The basic premise is to get the person committed to the cause or product as soon as possible. Once a commitment is made, the nature of thought changes. To the converted (in this case the lottery ticket buyer), careful and considered analysis of the situation is likely to be minimal. Lotteries have one great advantage over many other forms of gambling in that many people pick exactly the same numbers each week. In the UK, a newspaper survey reported that 67% of people choose the same numbers each week. Of this figure, the survey reported that 30% chose their regular numbers after an initial random selection and 37% chose the same numbers each week based on birthday dates, house numbers, favourite numbers, etc. However, no details were given about demography of the participants or the sample size.

By picking the same numbers the person may become ‘entrapped’. Each week the player thinks they are coming closer to winning. The winning day is impossible to predict but should the lottery player decide to stop and cut their losses, they are faced with the prospect that the very next week their numbers might come up. The player is thus entrapped and the entrapment become greater as the weeks go by. According to Australian psychologist Dr Michael Walker, people can reach a point where holidays cannot be taken unless arrangements are made for the weekly ticket to be completed and entered. The ‘entrapment’ process is not only known as the ‘sunk cost bias’ but is also another ‘foot-in-the-door’ technique.

These heuristics and biases give some insight into why gamblers do not learn from their past losses and help to explain supposedly ‘irrational’ behaviour. However, heuristics and biases have no predictive value. It is almost impossible to know which heuristic will be applied in a given situation and it is quite possible for the same person to use a different heuristic in the same situation on different occasions.

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

Further reading

Arkes, H.R. & Blumer, C. (1985). The psychology of sunk cost.  Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 35, 124-140.

Griffiths, M.D. (1997). The National Lottery and instant scratchcards: A psychological perspective. The Psychologist: The Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 10, 26-29.

Griffiths, M.D. (1997). Selling hope: The psychology of the National Lottery. Psychology Review, 4, 26-30.

Griffiths, M.D. (2008). Problem gambling and European lotteries. In M. Viren (Ed.), Gaming in New Market Environment. pp. 126-159. New York: Macmillan Palgrave.

Griffiths, M.D. & Wood, R.T.A. (2001). The psychology of lottery gambling. International Gambling Studies, 1, 27-44.

Kahneman, D. & Tversky, A. (1973). Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability. Cognitive Psychology, 5, 207-233.

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.

Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1971). Belief in the law of small numbers. Psychological Bulletin, 76, 105-110.

Walker, M.B. (1992). The Psychology of Gambling. Pergamon, Oxford.

Wagenaar, W. (1988). Paradoxes of Gambling Behaviour. Erlbaum, London.

Wood, R.T.A. & Griffiths, M.D. (2004). Adolescent lottery and scratchcard players: Do their attitudes influence their gambling behaviour? Journal of Adolescence, 27, 467-475.