Why are Gamblers Bad at Playing the Odds?
Despite the presence of house edges and random number generators, the fact remains that many gamblers believe they can beat the system. This is, in effect, a cornerstone of the casino industry, but it is also an interesting dynamic present within the human brain. For example, let’s consider the roulette wheel. While most gamblers would admit that each spin is completely random and independent of recent spins, there is still a strong urge to read patterns in the results. Six red spins in a row? The wheel is due to produce a black, right? Well, not exactly.
This phenomenon, in which people read patterns that don’t exist, is known as the gambler’s fallacy. Despite the intellectual knowledge that the next spin of the roulette wheel is completely unpredictable, people have an undying urge to prove otherwise, and this feeling could have evolutionary roots. According to Wolfgang Gaissmaier, a psychologist at the University of Kostanz in Germany, the desire to read patterns in noisy data is likely a side effect of humans’ adaptive ability, left over from when our pre-human ancestors were searching for food or watching for predators.
“Evolution has primed us to have a low threshold for detecting patterns,” Gaissmaier stated. “The downside is that we get a lot of false alarms.”
The natural human attraction to patterns goes beyond the roulette wheel, as indicated by Gaissmaier’s slot machine experiment. In this test, gamblers were shown two slot machines and asked to predict which one would give a payout on the next spin. For one machine, the probability of winning was 67 percent, while the other had a probability of 33 percent. While the best strategy would be to always choose the high percentage machine, the majority of gamblers ignored this fact in order to find better odds that didn’t exist. This phenomenon, known as probability matching, comes from a misperception of randomness.
When combined with impulsiveness, which is commonly associated with habitual gamblers, these two traits have the potential to lead to massive problems, particularly when it comes to gambling addiction. The tendency of people to ignore logic when determining a betting strategy is a major reason that the odds are always in the house’s favor.
“I’ve been teaching the gambler’s fallacy for a long time, but when I see the last five spins of that roulette wheel have landed on black, I have to inhibit that tendency in myself,” stated Luke Clark, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “Even if you know the effect, they are very compelling biases when you’re in the game.”
So, why are gamblers so bad at playing the odds? The simple answer is that they often have an undeniable tendency to locate patterns that simply don’t exist. When it comes to the probability of winning on each bet, most games in the casino feature completely independent odds with every passing round, but gamblers will almost always look for a connection. Seeing these connections makes gambling more interesting for players, even if it has no predictable effect on the results of the game.