The Psychology of Gambling

Gambling Psychology

Gambling is inextricably linked with humankind and can be traced all the way back to the Paleolithic period. To put this in perspective, we’re talking about 3000BC – an age that actually pre-dates written history.

The discovery of six-sided dice in a region previously known as Mesopotamia, seem to indicate that as well as crafting stone tools and decorating cave walls, our primitive predecessors also enjoyed a flutter.

Quite what they were wagering on however, remains a mystery. So why has such a paradoxical act held our fascination for so long? To even begin to understand, it’s helpful to consider gambling in its most basic form.

What is Gambling?

Essentially, gambling involves the staking of an item of value on an outcome that’s governed by chance. This seemingly innocuous process has become popular across most cultures and is widely accepted in one form or another. Much of this has to do with partial reinforcement.

Partial Reinforcement

Put simply, partial reinforcement in gambling occurs when a person wins. Although this doesn’t happen all the time, winning convinces the individual that it will happen again. In turn this makes it difficult for them to stop.

However, as with any type of behaviour, there has to be some sort of underlying motivation. Well, this is a broad subject, to say the least. Indeed, theories abound as to the multitude of drives which prompt individuals to part with their money. In an effort to add some clarity to what has become a rather convoluted area, we now outline some of the most widely acknowledged theories.

The Mechanics of Gambling Motivation

One of the classic approaches to understanding gambling motivation derives from the studies of psychologists, Robert Custer and Harry Milt. In their influential work, ‘When Luck Runs Out: Help for Compulsive Gamblers and Their Families’ (1985), they suggested that gamblers were motivated by a wide spectrum of factors. They identified six categories under which they could be classified:

  • Social gamblers who play for fun and are not emotionally affected by the outcomes
  • Professional players who gamble for a living, play for money but treat losses as part of their business
  • Antisocial gamblers whose only goal is to win by any means possible
  • Social gamblers who play for leisure and social interaction
  • Relief and escape gamblers who seek emotional relief
  • Addictive and compulsive gamblers who lack self-control and allow the act of gambling to negatively affect their lives

Biopsychosocial Theory

Then there are the theorists who attempt to examine the motivations of all gamblers instead of matching one motive to each gambling type. Known as the Biopsychosocial approach, its proponents used interviews and focus groups to form the basis of their conclusions. They argue that gambling motivation is a combination of economic, social and psychological factors.

Many researchers suggested the prospect of becoming wealthy was a big factor (Walker 1992) and that gambling was motivated by economic considerations. The desire to get something for nothing was also thought to be a major motivator (Aasved 2003).

(Griffiths 1995) and (Walker 1992) contended that social interaction was important, especially in regards to card games which required constant interaction. This was echoed in other studies, whose subjects expressed a desire to be accompanied by other players and/or surrounded by a crowd during play (Roger 1998).

Relieving anxiety and escaping from stress were also revealed to be important (Clarke , 2004; Raylu & Oei, 2002). However, these needs weren’t as pronounced among casual, non-problem gamblers.

Happily, the theories don’t stop here. Let’s now move on to self-determination theory.

Self-Determination Theory

Self-Determination theory was originally used to study motivation in work, education and leisure (Deci & Ryan, 1985, 1991). Its main premise is the idea that people need to feel self-determined and competent during interaction with their surrounding environment.

In 2001, researchers, Yves Chantal, Robert J Vallerand and Evelyne F Vallieries applied this approach to the study of gambler motivation. They suggested that the main purpose of gambling was to satisfy self-determined needs based on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivators include experience stimulation, social recognition, learning and accomplishment. As Ryan and Deci (2000) put it, an intrinsic motivator ‘is the doing of an activity for its inherent satisfaction rather than for some separable consequence’. Intrinsic motivators, which are reported by most casual gamblers, can be grouped into a variety of categories:

Experience Stimulation and Entertainment
Gamblers who play for fun and excitement are motivated by experience stimulation. Examples of this might include an activity such as raising a bet pre-flop in a game of poker, or placing a sizeable wager on a racehorse.

Learning and Accomplishment
Discovering, understanding and accomplishment are also considered to be intrinsic motivators. So, behaviours like gathering poker hand statistics or studying the outcomes of roulette could indicate an intrinsic motivation to know. This might also be illustrated by gamblers who strive to improve their in-play performance. E.g.: a blackjack player who tries to refine his counting method.

Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivators are grouped in three categories: external, introjected and identified regulation. External regulation describes a gambler’s desire to become rich and is the most commonly-cited motivation (Clarke, Tse, Abbot, Townsend, Kingi & Manaia, 2007).

Introjected motivators refer to the heightened feelings of self-esteem and self-worth that can be derived from gambling. This is typically achieved through the wagering of large amounts of money in front of peers (Chantal et al., 1995; Chantal & Vallerand, 1996).

Identified regulation also relates to self-determination theory and describes a desire to escape and relax from problems or negative emotions. A major 2006 study entitled, ‘Toward an Understanding of Predictive and Protective Factors in Gambling’, found that gambling satisfied a desire to escape the pressures and routines of daily life.

Gambling Motivation Scale

The Gambling Motivation Scale is based on the theories we’ve looked at and comprises seven motivations: to learn the game, to feel competent, to experience excitement, to socialise, to feel important, to win money and to continue gambling aimlessly (Chantal, Vallerand, Vallieres 1994).

We’ve all been affected by some or all of these motivations at one time or another. While gambling aimlessly may not be an approach that a professional would approve of, for most casual gamblers, it hits very close to home.

So as far as motivation is concerned, it’s pretty evident that there’s a broad range of factors at play here. Unfortunately, some of these approaches fail to acknowledge that gambling is often motivated by personal characteristics unrelated to economic or societal factors (Griffiths 2006).

Availability and cultural acceptability are also major elements in the motivation cycle that aren’t properly covered. Nevertheless, some of the ideas we’ve looked at go a long way in revealing why so many of us behave as we do.

With the complexities of gambling motivation now firmly behind us, let’s venture further down the rabbit hole to consider some of the many thought processes which bedevil the gambler’s mind.

Part 2 – The Punter’s Paradox – Popular Misconceptions among Gamblers

Once on the casino floor, we’re exposed to all manner of stimuli that prey on our own misconceptions and mental shortcomings. And research has shown that one of our main problems can be found in mathematics and the law of large numbers.

Probability and Sequences

Human beings are generally poor at judging probability and randomness. Numerous studies in the field of experimental psychology have shown that we find it difficult to recognise random sequences (Tversky & Kahneman 1971; Wagenaar 1972).

Instead we tend to show a preference for sequences with shorter, more balanced outcomes and expect smaller sample data to be indicative of a wider outcome. This leads us to the gambler’s fallacy.

The Gambler’s Fallacy

Also known as the Monte Carlo Fallacy, this paradoxical line of thinking affects us all in varying degrees and relates to all kinds of gambling activities. Basically, it’s the mistaken belief that if something occurs more frequently than normal within a particular period of time, it will happen less frequently in the future. This particular brain-freeze got its name from an incident which occurred at a Monte Carlo casino in the early 20th century.

During a game of roulette, the ball fell in black twenty six times in a row. So patrons started to bet against black, in the firm belief that the unusual streak would affect the wheel’s randomness and result in a long sequence of red. But as per the law of (very) large numbers, the streak was utterly random despite a probability of 136.8 million to 1.

The Hot Hand Fallacy

Hot Hand is basically the gambler’s fallacy in reverse. People suffering from the gambler’s fallacy unrealistically expect a losing streak to come to an end, but those under the spell of the hot hand fallacy unrealistically expect a winning streak to continue (Xu, Harvey 2014).

The term was first coined in a 1985 research paper entitled, ‘The Hot Hand in Basketball’, by Amos Tversky, Thomas Gilovich and Robert Vallone. They sought to address the ‘hot streak’ mentality which pervaded (and still does) basketball and posits that a player is more likely to score a basket if the previous shot was successful.

They concluded that hot hand thinking was spurious and heavily influenced by our inability to recognise randomness and chance sequences. Central to this hypothesis is the clustering illusion theory – a human tendency to underestimate the amount of variability in a small sample of data (Gilovich, Thomas 1991).

Nevertheless, this type of flawed thinking afflicts countless gamblers and casino patrons, who believe they can actually defy the laws of physics by controlling random events – just because they feel like they’re on a ‘winning streak’.

Availability Heuristic

The availability heuristic is a rather stealthier delusion than the kind mentioned thus far. It causes us to predict the outcome of an event based entirely on how easily it can be brought to mind (Tversky and Kahneman 1974). Say, for example, that we witness somebody win money in a casino, we then expect it to happen to us despite the low probability.

Naturally, this is exploited to the full by casinos and game manufacturers. For example, slot machines are equipped with all manner of bells and whistles, which erupt into a cacophony of noise should someone win. But if you thought these were merely intended for the smug winner then think again – these particular bells also toll for you, not to mention everybody else within ear-shot.

Being party to such a scene plays on our mind, causing us to conclude that the same thing could easily happen to us. It’s the same with a host of [top online casinos] which often feature side panel feeds informing visitors of the latest winners.

The Near Miss Effect

Near misses are a common occurrence in all forms of gambling and are often important, memorable events to a gambler. Examples include a fruit machine which displays two cherries on its reels with the third falling just short, or a poker hand that’s only just bettered by another.

Gamblers often misinterpret such events as being clear evidence that they’re beginning to master a particular game. This fosters an illusion of control in the individual, who falls under the false assumption that he’s ‘not constantly losing but constantly nearly winning’ (Griffiths 1991).

Near-miss outcomes have been the subject of numerous studies. The first of its kind was conducted by L.H. Strickland and F.W. Grote in 1967 as part of a research paper for the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Two groups of subjects were required to play a slot machine simulation that featured three reels. The reels, which stopped sequentially, contained green and red stimuli. When the first group played, the odds of a red icon appearing on reels One, Two and Three amounted to 70%, 50% and 30% respectively.

Therefore, the likely outcome was a near miss. The second group played the same game, but this time the reels were reversed. Results indicated that participants in Group 1 played much longer than subjects from Group 2.

These findings have since been supported by a number of studies. All of them found that people who were subjected to near miss conditions played significantly more trials on a game.

The Illusion of Control

The illusion of control, as mentioned above, occurs when a person becomes convinced that a game of chance is actually about skill. While there are a few games that are, such as blackjack, the illusion of control often causes gamblers to falsely conclude that skill is far more influential than it actually is.

As with the near miss effect, they feel compelled to continue playing, believing that they have, or are in the process of acquiring the necessary savvy to win. Such a potentially ruinous state of mind often leads to overconfidence and an exaggerated notion of outcome regarding uncertain events.

This is perfectly exemplified by the player who feels that their likelihood of winning is actually greater than the hard reality of their situation (Lam 2007). This coupled with a strong desire to get something for nothing or to get rich quick, can prove a rather heady mix.


Few achieve sustained financial success through gambling. It’s worth remembering that phrases like ‘the house always wins’ are true because the machines and games that occupy casino floors have been adjusted to take our money over the long term.

And while it’s certainly the case that past events have the power to influence the future in everyday life, it’s just not the case with gambling. Those who think otherwise will get a stinging reality check somewhere down the line.

So being aware of our mental foibles and urges, not to mention the daunting law of large numbers, is the only way to get the most out of gambling and casino visits. Such activities can be great fun provided the mind-set is right and expectations are low.