At the end of 2009, Dr Ryan McKay and Professor Daniel Dennett wrote an interesting paper in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences on the evolution of misbelief. They examined the distinction between two general types of misbelief. Firstly, those resulting from a breakdown in the normal functioning of the belief formation system (e.g., delusions), and secondly, those arising in the normal course of that system's operations (e.g., beliefs based on incomplete or inaccurate information). One area in which misbeliefs have been empirically examined but were not covered in that paper – especially in relation to the second type of misbelief – is in the area of problem gambling and gambling addiction. This blog briefly examines the evolution and role of misbeliefs in relation to cognitive biases and positive illusions (i.e., erroneous perceptions) of gamblers.

Despite the fact that the odds of almost all gambling activities are weighted strongly in favour of the gambling operator, gamblers – and particularly problem gamblers – continue to believe they can win money from gambling. This observation leads to the conclusion that gambling may be maintained by irrational or erroneous beliefs. For example, people overestimate the extent to which they can predict or influence gambling outcomes and tend to misjudge how much money they have won or lost. This hypothesis has been confirmed in numerous studies (including some of my own published studies) showing that people overestimate the degree of skill or control that can be exerted in chance activities.

Using the arguments put forward by McKay and Dennett to re-examine the empirical gambling literature on cognitive bias, it could perhaps be argued that many of the kinds of erroneous perceptions displayed by gamblers (e.g., hindsight biases, availability biases, confirmation biases, illusory correlations, representativeness biases, etc.) comprise ecologically rational decision-making strategies that inevitably operate when there are limitations of time and computational resources (i.e., the “take the best” heuristic). Furthermore, it could also be argued that the misbeliefs shown by some problem gamblers at the height of their disordered gambling may as Australian psychologist Peter Butler describes as a “defense against depressive overwhelm”. Here, certain delusions shown by gamblers might be serving as plausible defensive functions.

Some research I carried out with Dr. Jonathan Parke and Dr Adrian Parke examined the role of positive thinking among gamblers. We noted the previous research in health and clinical settings showing that individuals often employ particular cognitive strategies in the face of adversity or while experiencing negative affect. Such health-related studies have found that cognitive experience is involved in compensating for a negative emotional state. Furthermore, self-aggrandizement, an exaggerated sense of optimism and over-estimating personal control, are found to be key responses to threatening information (such as being told the patient has a life-threatening illness). These observations have shown that despite some incongruence with reality, these misbeliefs are correlated with good (rather than poor) adjustment to the illness.

Despite the history of positive thinking styles in the health and clinical arena, there had not been any research on this area in relation to gambling behavior. Therefore, we set out to determine whether (after gambling) gamblers compensate and reduce negative affect by identifying positive consequences from experiencing a loss. We identified nine types of ‘positive thinking’ experienced by gamblers (comparative thinking, prophylactic thinking, biased frequency thinking, responsibility avoidance, chasing validation, prioritization, resourcefulness, thoughtfulness, and fear reduction). Gamblers who were positive thinkers experienced significantly less guilt about losing than non-positive thinkers. 

Here, the positive illusions displayed by gamblers are (following McKay and Dennett’s arguments) accruing benefit from misbelief directly not merely from the systems that produce it. However, unlike the positive illusions outlined by McKay and Dennett, we argued that in the case of gambling behavior maintenance, this is one type of behavior where positive illusions have a negative detrimental effect over time and that unlike most other areas of human behavior, are maladaptive in this context. 

Why gamblers should consistently demonstrate these biases and where they come from is not so clear. It is also unclear whether use of positive illusions depends on intrinsic factors (e.g., psychological mood state) and/or extrinsic factors (e.g., gambling history). It has been suggested that persistent gambling behavior is thought to be the result of people's overconfidence in their ability to win money. While research regarding positive illusions in gambling may be lacking, research has found that gambling behavior is facilitated when players believe they have control over the event and when they feel that they are “nearly winning” even in the event of a losing outcome. It should also be noted that the fundamental difference between heuristics and positive illusions is that heuristics operate to remove doubt, whereas positive illusions operate to remove negative affect created by the adverse consequences of gambling. By overestimating benefits and reducing guilt, positive illusions disrupt the naturally occurring contingencies of reinforcement that might otherwise prevent excessive gambling.

While reduction of negative affect may be perceived as positive in many other contexts, it is maladaptive in gambling behavior (at least on an individual level). However, it also appears that such misbeliefs may have continued to evolve among gamblers despite individual detriment. This is because many of the same types of positive illusions appear to be displayed by gamblers consistently over time.

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