In Excess

Gambling, Gaming and Extreme Behavior

Charm Minimization

What role does superstition play in gambling?

Hands up. How many of you reading this are superstitious when you gamble? If you are, you are not alone. Even the most skillful 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 us are superstitious. The most often reported superstitious behaviours (at least here in the UK) 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, 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 skillful players have lucky charms and/or have superstitious beliefs.

Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit in the Psychology Division at Nottingham Trent University (UK).

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