Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Compulsive Behaviors

The Psychology of Gambling

Five surprising facts about gambling.

Gambling is an interesting psychological phenomenon, and there has been extensive research on how psychological processes affect gambling behavior. Here are five interesting gambling phenomena.

1. Being in a good mood leads to increased gambling

A recent study found a relationship between things that cause a positive mood (# of days of sunshine; success of local sports teams) and increased gambling. The explanation was that positive mood leads to more risk taking.

2. Gambler's fallacy

So, a roulette player watches as seven black numbers come up in a row, so he puts all of his money on red. This well-known psychological process is called the gambler’s fallacy and is the mistaken belief that if an event happens repeatedly, a different event is imminent. In reality, the odds of any particular event occurring are always the same.

3. Changing expectations regarding winning

In a clever study, racetrack bettors were asked to estimate the odds that their favored horse would win, both before and after betting on the horse. After placing their bets, gamblers tended to believe that their horse had a greater chance of winning than before they bet. The increased commitment caused them to be more hopeful.

4. The bandwagon effect

When lottery jackpots reach record levels and garner a great deal of media attention, there is a frenzy of ticket buying, as people decide that they don’t want to be left out of the process. At these times, even people who have never before played the lottery will “jump on the bandwagon” and purchase some tickets.

5. Gambling systems and superstitions.

Gambling is, by its very definition, a random event. Yet, many gamblers firmly believe that they can devise a system to win at gambling. This includes trying to predict patterns in random numbers (there are none), trying to select “hot” slot machines and avoid “cold” ones (e.g., continuing to play a machine because it is “hot;” playing a machine that hasn’t paid off in a long time, thinking it’s “due”), or performing some ritualistic behavior in order to keep getting wins (I know of several gamblers who tap slot machines with a lucky “talisman”).

As you know, gambling can be terribly addicting, and these psychological processes often work to increase that addiction. Neuroscience research has found that gambling addiction has many of the same neural processes as drug addiction.

A key to breaking a gambling addiction is to break down fallacies about gambling and learning to manage the addiction. There are a number of very good websites and hotlines to help deal with gambling addiction, including the National Council on Problem Gambling.

Follow me on Twitter.


Faerber, L. (2013). How the brain gets addicted to gambling. Scientific American.

Otto, O., Fleming, S.M., Glimcher, P.W. (2016). Unexpected but Incidental Positive Outcomes Predict Real-World Gambling Psychological Science.

More from Ronald E. Riggio Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today