Blog Archives

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

Further reading

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

Nag, nag, nag: The psychology of horse-race betting

All forms of gambling lie on a luckskill dimension. Neither games of pure skill nor games of pure chance are particularly attractive to serious gamblers. Games of chance (like lotteries) offer no significant edge to serious gamblers and are unlikely to be gambled upon. While games of skill provide a significant edge for the gambler, serious gamblers need more than an edge – they need an opponent who can be exploited. Serious gamblers gravitate towards types of gambling that provide an appropriate mix of chance and skill. This is one of the reasons why sports betting – and in particular horse-race betting – is so popular for gamblers. In the most recent British Gambling Prevalence Survey published in 2011, the results indicated that betting on horse-races in the past year had slightly decreased to 16% (down from 17% in the 2007 survey) with men (21%) being more likely than women (13%) to have bet on horse-races. The survey also showed that 7% of the sample had gambled on horse-races in the past week. The survey also indicated that horse-race bettors were more likely to be classed as ‘high spenders’ compared to most other types of gambler.

The edge available in horse-race gambling can be sufficient to fully support professional gamblers as they bring their wide range of knowledge to the activity. There is the complex interplay of factors that contributes to the final outcome of the race. There is the form of the horse, the length of the race, the reputation of the jockey, trainer and stable, breeding, weight, the conditions of the racetrack, etc. From this mix of information the horse-race bettor will, broadly speaking, do one of two things. Either they try to select a winner, or they try to select a horse that offers the best odds in terms of its true chances. Assessing these odds (i.e., handicapping), is done by developing ratings based on the available information. Precisely how all these factors can be combined to select a horse is a matter about which most gamblers disagree, but it is reasonable to assume that many punters believe that their knowledge of these factors gives them an edge over other punters that they are competing against.

Individuals clearly differ in how they use complex information to select horses. There has been some interesting research on the psychology of handicapping particularly in whether good handicappers are more intelligent. For instance, American psychologists, Dr. Steve Ceci and Dr. Jeffrey Liker studied a group of experienced horse-race gamblers all of who had been serious gamblers for over eight years and who attended racetracks most days. In a paper that had published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, they divided the gamblers into experts and non-experts on the basis of predicting the favourite and the rank order according to odds of the three most favoured horses. Expert gamblers were those who correctly picked the favourite in at least nine out of ten races and correctly picked the top three horses in rank order in at least five out of ten races. In contrast, the best of the non-experts correctly identified the favourite in only five out of ten races, and selected the top three in only two of the ten races. The two groups were then given a number of intelligence quotient (IQ) tests. Ceci and Liker predicted that the experts would have higher IQs on the basis of their handicapping ability but was very surprised to find no difference at all between the two groups’ intelligence levels.

When the psychologists did some follow-up interviewing, they found that one of the best handicappers was a construction worker with a low IQ (of 85). He managed to pick the top horse in terms of post-time odds 100% of the time and picked the top three horses in correct order in five out of ten races. They also highlighted the case of a high IQ lawyer who picked the top horse only 30% of the time and got the rank ordering of the top three horses correct only once. One of the things concluded was that there is probably more than one type of intelligence and that the IQ test that was used may not have measured the types of skill needed in the handicapping of horses. At least Ceci and Liker’s findings give some hope to us all!

Psychologists have also shown that gamblers (including those who bet on horse racing) can be very biased in their thinking. The occasional punter expects to lose but this isn’t the case for serious gamblers. Each bet is part of a pattern of bets that the gambler expects to yield a positive return overall. To the gambler, winning bets confirm that their system is successful. However, losing bets do not convince gamblers that their system is a failure. Gamblers may explain losing bets as an error in implementing their system or to factors beyond their control. In essence, (and as I have shown in some of my own research studies) many gamblers attribute wins to their skilful gambling but explain away losses as something due to external factors or the environment that they gamble in. On a psychological level, the serious gambler is able to maintain their belief that they have a winning system despite mounting losses through biased evaluations of the outcomes. Since winning is central to the gambler’s self-concept and self-esteem, they cannot quit while losing as this would invalidate the core of the self-concept and initiate intense negative effects (such as depression).

Although horse-race gamblers treat their pastime as a skilful activity, it has been estimated that at least 40% of the relevant information that determines the winner of a race is not accessible to any gamblers. Furthermore, despite years of practice, frequent gamblers may still be very poor at assessing the chances of different horses.

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

Further reading

Ceci, S. J., & Liker, J. K. (1986). A day at the races: A study of IQ, expertise, and cognitive complexity. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 115, 255-266.

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. (2010). The psychology of sports betting: What should affiliates know? i-Gaming Business Affiliate, August/September, 46-47.

Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Mobile sportsbetting: A view from the social sciences. i-Gaming Business, 69, 64-65.

Parke, A., Griffiths, M.D. & Irwing, P. (2004). Personality traits in pathological gambling: Sensation seeking, deferment of gratification and competitiveness as risk factors, Addiction Research and Theory, 12, 201-212.

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.

Wardle, H., Moody, A., Spence, S., Orford, J., Volberg, R., Jotangia, D., Griffiths, M., Hussey, D. & Dobbie, F. (2011). British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2010. London: The Stationery Office.

Wardle, H., Sproston, K., Orford, J., Erens, B., Griffiths, M.D., Constantine, R. & Pigott, S. (2007). The British Gambling Prevalence Survey 2007. London: The Stationery Office

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.