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
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
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
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.