In Excess

Gambling, Gaming and Extreme Behavior

Going in for the Skill

Gambling and the illusion of control

For the professional gambler, being in control of the situation is paramount. However, one of the psychological ploys that the gaming industry likes to exploit is the fact that gamblers often perceive they have more control than they have in actuality. Probably one of the most single influential contributions to the psychology of gambling was Ellen Langer's series of experiments on the illusion of control in the 1970s. Her theories were based on the observations that some people treat chance events as controllable. For instance, it isn’t uncommon for dealers and croupiers who experience runs of bad luck to lose their job. Back in the 1960s, sociologists studying craps players noticed those throwing the dice behaved as if they were controlling the outcome of the toss. Typically, craps players threw the dice softly for low numbers and hard for high numbers. In a follow-up experimental investigation, psychologists showed that when playing with dice, people bet less money and were less confident if asked to bet after someone else had thrown the dice rather than throwing it themselves, even though the probability of success was the same in both situations. Ellen Langer argued that these behaviours are totally rational if gamblers believed their game was a game of skill.

The 'illusion of control' was defined by Langer as being “an expectancy of a personal success inappropriately higher than the objective probability would warrant.” Put simply, gamblers think they have more chance of winning than they actually do. She tested for this in a series of experimental studies that supported her original idea (that under some circumstances, gamblers will produce skill orientations towards chance events). Langer’s experiments convincingly showed that players bet more when playing cards against a 'nervous' competitor than against a 'confident' one. She also demonstrated that players would sell previously bought lottery tickets for a higher price if they had picked the numbers themselves as opposed to having them picked by someone else. Her other groundbreaking experiments showed that certain factors such as the nature of the competition, the familiarity of the task, and the degree of personal involvement influence the belief that skill is a controlling force, stimulates the illusion of control, and produces skill orientations. In a later study involving the prediction of 'heads' or 'tails' after a coin was tossed, she also showed that early wins during chance games induced a skill orientation even though the activity was totally chance determined.

Many regular gamblers (such as roulette players) passionately believe their game is skill-based, and offer explanations of why they failed to win when their number doesn’t come up. Such beliefs have been tested experimentally by US psychologist Thomas Gilovich in a study of the biased evaluations in gambling behaviour. In three studies using people who bet on football games, Gilovich demonstrated that gamblers transformed their losses into 'near wins'. Gamblers pinpointed random or 'fluke' events that contributed to a loss but were unaffected by identical events that contributed to a win. I’m sure you can all think of instances like this when watching football. When your team loses, it’s not uncommon to berate the referee for a dodgy penalty decision or deride the linesman because he failed to spot an offside. You may end up blaming your team’s loss on one particular event. Had your team won with the dodgy decision going your team’s way, you would probably rationalise it and say your team would have won anyway because of their superior playing ability and skill. Gilovich also reported that gamblers spent more time discussing their losses and discounting them. For example, after a loss, a lot of time may be spent analysing a small incident of a few seconds duration even though the game lasted 90 minutes. What’s more, we make ourselves feel better by blaming the loss on something or someone external. Interestingly, exactly the same effects have been found in gambling activities in which losses could not easily be explained away (such as Gilovich’s experiments using computerised bingo gambling).

Many psychologists have consistently highlighted the irrational perceptions people produce while gambling. Many studies have evaluated the cognitive activities of gamblers while they play on slot machines or roulette using the 'thinking aloud' method. This basically involves getting gamblers to think aloud while they are gambling. Typical results have shown that erroneous and irrational perceptions of the gambling activity far outnumber the logical and rational perceptions. In these situations, gamblers attribute their success to personal factors such as skill whereas external factors (like bad luck) account for losses. For instance, in my own research on slot machine gamblers, I found that when slots players were winning they would attribute their success to their playing strategy and skill. When they lost it was because of something external in the gambling environment. For example, someone had put them off by talking to them or watching them while gambling. Similar findings have reproduced by psychological experiments in Canada, Australia, the USA and the UK (including some of my own). The illusion of control is just one of the many ways in which a gambler distorts the perceptions of their gambling. These are sufficient enough to show that psychological factors can influence the way in which people gamble and continue to gamble.

References and further reading

Coventry, K. & Norman, A. (1998). Arousal, erroneous verbalizations and the illusion of control during a computer generated task. British Journal of Psychology, 89, 629-645.

Gilovich, T. (1983). Biased evaluation and persistence in gambling. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 1110-1126.

Gilovich, T. & Douglas, C. (1986). Biased evaluations of randomly determined gambling outcomes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 22, 228-241.

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.

Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Is ‘loss of control’ always a consequence of addiction? Frontiers in Psychiatry, 4, 36. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00036

Griffiths, M.D. & Wood, R.T.A. (2001). The psychology of lottery gambling. International Gambling Studies, 1, 27-44.

Henslin, J. (1967) Craps and magic. American Journal of Sociology, 73, 316-330.

Langer, E. J. (1975). The illusion of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 311-328.

Langer, E.J. & Roth, J. (1975). The effect of sequence outcome in a chance task on the illusion of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32, 951-955. 

Rogers, P. (1988). The cognitive psychology of lottery gambling: a theoretical review. Journal of Gambling Studies, 14, 111-134.

Rogers, P. & Webley, P. (2001). It could be us! Cognitive and social psychological factors in UK National Lottery play. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 50, 181-199.

Taylor, S. E. (1989). Positive illusions: Creative self-deception and the healthy mind. New York: Basic Books. 

Wagenaar, W. A. (1988). Paradoxes in Gambling Behaviour. London: Erlbaum.


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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