Why Do People Gamble?

When we see gambling in the movies, it brings a very glitzy and glamorous picture to mind. We think of Hollywood’s rich and famous living it large and splashing the cash. It can be a very attractive image, but unless you’re Molly Bloom, chances are you’re not moving in these circles. The reality for most people is very different, and can sometimes take a sinister turn. Movies like ‘The Gambler’ and ‘Owing Mahowny’ explore the spirals of addiction and compulsive behavior that can become part of a gambler’s lifestyle. Nevertheless many people in the US today enjoy casual gambling as part of a normal and healthy life. It’s something exciting to do with friends and to let off a little steam on the weekend. So that brings us to the ultimate question. Why do people gamble?
An online texas hold'em game.
Published on: 19 August 2019

The Enduring Popularity of Gambling

Gambling comes in many forms these days, catering to all sorts of different tastes. From horseracing to poker, slots to sports betting – there’s something for everyone. Just in terms of US gambling, the industry is now worth over $150 billion every year and has expanded to fit all sorts of niches. Casinos cater for a dramatic social night out, while bingo halls often suit an older clientele. You can even gamble online on your phone or tablet, from the comfort of your own home or while travelling. It’s easy to see why gambling is so universally popular. If you’re not sure what the appeal is, you can check out our mobile gaming guide to see what the fuss is about.

There is just one confusing element that makes the enduring popularity of gambling very intriguing. We can’t always win. In fact, the odds are very often stacked high against us. Despite this, gamblers keep gambling, as if pulled in by some gravitational force. Scientists, psychologists and sociologists have all gone to huge lengths to try and explain why people gamble. Let’s find out what some of these answers are.

The Illusion of Control

The first major point to talk about is the ‘illusion of control’. Psychologist Ellen Langer came up with this theory that goes some way to explain peoples self-belief in gambling, as well as belief in the paranormal.

Let’s begin with this question. Why do people gamble when they have previously lost a bet? One answer is this: confidence. People have a tendency to believe that they have more control over their ability to predict an outcome than they actually do. Sure, you can take an educated guess, but some bets are based purely on chance. It’s a fallacy to think your skill has much bearing on the outcome at all.

A hand using a coin to scratch off a scratch-card.

According to psychologists there are two contributing factors to a gambler’s illusion of control. The first one is near misses. This is when you might come within a hair’s breadth of winning, but then you lose. Say for instance that you have a lottery ticket. If you’ve guessed all of the winning numbers bar one, you’ll feel like you almost won. It’s true – you did almost win, but skill had nothing to do with it. It’s likely that you’ll think you’ll have better luck next time, because you’re getting better at choosing the numbers. Encouraged by your near-win, you’re probably going to go out and buy another lottery ticket next week. Your brain is ignoring the fact that guessing numbers is a game of chance, not skill.

The second factor that psychologists talk about is personal choice. In a game where a player is given an active choice, let’s say by choosing a card or rolling a dice, they are able to exert some skill, which will control the outcome. If you pick the right card or land on a lucky number you’ve won. This win didn’t actually involve any skill at all because the action is totally random. Lucky win though, right?

These two factors – near misses and personal choice – encourage players to keep gambling. Gamblers even increase the size of their bets for these reasons, even though they might not have won.

The Gambler’s Fallacy

Following on from the ideas Langer produced in her theory on the illusion of control, we have the ‘gambler’s fallacy’. Basically, this means that players think the chances of a future outcome are higher, based on previous outcomes. It’s a fallacy because it’s simply not true. Let’s use roulette to explain this a little more clearly. You bet on red again and again because it must win at some point, right? Wrong. The chances of landing on red or black are always 50/50. It doesn’t matter what color the ball has already landed on, or how many times that has happened. The chances stay the same because there are always the same two outcomes.

Due to gambler’s fallacy, players will often increase their bets through the game. They think that they will wind up winning bigger at the end as a result. Instead, even if they do win big, it often doesn’t actually cover the loss they’ve incurred throughout the game. They have upped their bets to try and break even, but instead just elevated the debt.

There is a famous instance of gambler’s fallacy happening in real life. In Monte Carlo Casino on August 18, 1913, a game of roulette was played. The ball landed on black 26 times in a row, which was highly improbable. In fact, the probability of that happening is 1 in 66.6 million. Players bet against black, wrongly assuming that a long red streak would follow. As a result, millions of francs were lost in the process. To avoid making the same mistake, read our page on the best roulette strategies.

Positive Reinforcement

Gambling is exciting. You make your choices, the tension ramps up and then you find out if you’ve won or lost. When a player wins, the brain rewards them by releasing a natural high. This reinforces future gambling behavior because it has had a positive effect. The region of the brain that is responsible for this is called the striatum. It is also involved in rewarding other stimuli and is responsible for addiction. For instance, when a person takes a drug such as cocaine, the striatum responds positively to the stimuli and encourages it by giving a reward. In normal activities, this is a useful motivational tool. When it comes to substance abuse such as cocaine, it can result in addiction. This is exactly the same way gambling addictions can be triggered too.

Society’s Impact

It will always be the case that different factors in life lead to people to gambling. Some enjoy the thrill of the chase. Professional gamblers study their game and are in it to win big money. Others like to place a little wager on their favorite baseball team to show their support. For some it’s part of a lifestyle – getting glammed up for a night at a casino and hitting the slots with their pals.

A virtual roulette wheel and casino chips.

There are gambling trends too. Sometimes people catch wind of a sure thing and want to get in on it. When lottery jackpots get high everyone wants to go out and buy a ticket. The media catch on and it turns into a frenzy. We call this ‘availability heuristic’. People mistakenly think they have a good chance of catching a lucky break because they’ve been over-exposed to news stories about large lottery wins.

The Enduring Appeal of Gambling

Despite any negatives that go along with gambling, it is still very attractive to a lot of people. Being a lucky winner could turn your life upside down. Gambling gives you a chance of living out your wildest fantasies. That lucky win could buy you a private jet, a new home, a trip around the world – you name it. No matter how hard most people work, these things are totally unattainable any other way. It’s normal for people to aspire to being richer, because people spend their lives working to provide for themselves their families.

At the end of an evening, a gambler might find that they haven’t made their millions. If they’ve won a little, that’s amazing. It’s something they can put away for a rainy day, or maybe it’ll go back in the wallet to be spent at the casino another day. Maybe the player only broke even. That’s fine too because they almost won and they’ll have better luck next time. Another gambler made a loss, so there’s even more reason to get back on their feet and try again.

The world of gambling has always inspired a deep fascination. It’s glamor is otherworldly, an escape from the mundane. At the end of the day, winning is not just why people gamble. Sometimes, the thrill of the chase is enough. If you find that you are noticing worrying thought patterns when you gamble and you want to chase wins to the point that you are stressed about it, then you should consider looking for support from Gamblers Anonymous.

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