Psychology & Gambling

Psychology plays a role in many aspects of gambling. Most forms of gambling are based on randomness which means that the wins are unpredictable – the person playing never knows when a win is going to happen. In psychology, this is called variable ratio reinforcement.

Variable ratio reinforcement keeps people guessing about the timing of the win which in turn may keep them gambling. The more people gamble the more they will lose over the long term due to the house advantage.

If people begin losing more money than they can afford, they sometimes keep gambling to try and get their money back which can lead to what is called chasing. Chasing can result in even further losses and a feeling of being trapped. Some people may begin to think that if they don’t play, they will miss out on the chance to win back their money.

Misunderstanding how gambling really works and the role that psychology plays in gambling can lead to the development of mistaken beliefs, myths and superstitions about gambling.

Mistaken Beliefs, Myths and Superstitions

There are many mistaken beliefs, myths and superstitions about gambling. Here are a few:

Gambler’s Fallacy



When someone has not won for a while they start to believe that they are”due to win”. This common mistaken belief is called the gambler’s fallacy. The longer that someone goes without a win, the stronger this belief can be which can result in further gambling and increased losses.

Periodicity of Luck



Another common mistaken belief is that continuously winning means the person gambling is “on a roll” and they can’t lose. Streaks or periods of winning can occur in gambling but it does not necessarily mean you’re “lucky” and winning will continue. “A roll” or “streak” in gambling is only noticeable after it has occurred, it offers no predictive value for future plays. Because of randomness and probability, you will eventually lose more often than you win. Remember, the house always has the advantage.

Illusions of Control



A person believes that any “wins” are produced by their own efforts and not because of the randomness of the game. They may even attribute theirs wins to skill rather than chance.

Some people do certain things prior to playing the gambling game of their choice, such as blowing on a pair of dice, or patting a slot machine on the side before hitting the ‘spin’ button. Remember that gambling games are random, and that they work on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule. If you received a win just after doing something like patting the slot machine, you may think that by doing that action you have control over what the outcome of the game will be. If this was true, a lot more people would be winning at slot machines by patting them!




Some people may believe that they can win by learning a certain system of play. Some people may even see patterns in the results leading them to believe that they are onto something.

For example, some people who play lottery games have systems that they think will enable them to ‘crack the code’ and win the jackpot. These people may spend a significant amount of time reviewing the numbers drawn in the past in an attempt to predict the next winning numbers. It’s important to remember that all outcomes in a lottery are completely random and independent of all previous outcomes.

Roulette is another good example of people trying to develop systems to pick the next winning number. Some people will watch a roulette table for a long time, recording all the numbers that the ball landed on. After looking at the list of numbers, they will attempt to determine which number or numbers to place their wagers on. Like a lottery, Roulette is a game that is completely random and outcomes are independent of each other. No matter how long someone studies the outcomes, it will have no value in picking future outcomes.

Remember, most forms of gambling are random, each result is an independent event and past events have no impact on future results. Once again, randomness and probability rule the games making the outcome unpredictable.

Also, let’s not forget that the operator keeps a percentage of wagers over the long term as their house advantage. There has never been a system shown to beat the house advantage over the long term.

Selective Recall



People often remember the wins when gambling and are less likely to recall losses since winning is reinforced as the more desired result.

When something good happens to you, you want to tell everyone all about it – sometimes even twice! Now think about a time when you did something that you are not too proud of, or embarrassed about. How many people did you tell? The same thinking applies to gambling. When you win, you want everyone to know it! Gambling operators also want others to know that you have won which is why lights and sirens go off when someone wins a jackpot at a slot machine. But think about when someone loses. The person may leave the slot machine feeling down and dejected. They will most likely not tell anyone that they just lost gambling. Losses are personal.

Someone who gambles frequently may say that they have won a lot of money in one year, but it’s most likely that they lost a lot more than they have won.

Near Miss



Some people believe that almost winning when gambling is a sign that a win is just around the corner, so further gambling is justified.

Imagine getting all but one number to win the jackpot at bingo. You didn’t win the jackpot, but coming that close to winning might lead you to believe that you have a better chance of winning the next time. This also applies to games such as slot machines, where the symbols all line up except for one, or roulette where the winning number is right beside the one you picked.

However, close does not count when gambling. Unless the outcome makes you a winner, you have still lost at the gambling game you are playing. Playing longer or with larger bets does not guarantee you will win. What it does guarantee is that you will be spending more money and time gambling, and less time doing other activities you enjoy.




Some people who gamble believe that money lost to gambling is not really lost and can be recovered by further gambling. Chasing lost money will usually cost you more money because the operator keeps a percentage of all wagers over the long term. Remember that the house always wins and the more you play, the more you will spend in the long term!

Magical Thinking



Some people who gamble come to believe that wins are a result of thinking in a certain way like wishing for a win. Wishing for a win will not influence your chances or true odds of winning because the games are based on randomness.




Some people who gamble begin to believe that certain objects, behaviors and articles of clothing may be helping or hindering the outcome of their gambling. Again, lucky charms will not influence your chances or true odds of winning because the games are based on randomness.




Some people who play slot machines or VLTs believe that the machine is deliberately rewarding them or sometimes taunting and punishing them to make them mad. Sometimes people get attached to the machines and give the game human traits or characteristics. Some people talk to them, hug them and even hit them!

Some people may start believing that the machine ‘knows’ who is playing and decides to pay out or not pay out because it is them. If the machine pays out, the person may decide it is one of their favourite machines and consider it to be a good machine, faithful, dependable, etc. If the machine does not pay out, the person may begin to dislike the machine and may even avoid playing it and attribute negative characteristics to it, such as being ‘stingy’ or mean – thinking that the machine is purposely holding out on the payouts.

Remember, slot machines and VLTs are random and they keep a set percentage of all wagers over the long term.