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​​“Due for a win”: Thinking errors in gambling

By: Dr Anastasia Hronis (clinical psychologist) and Kelly Tow (clinical psychology registrar)

It goes without saying that our brains are incredibly complex.

They take in huge amounts of information from the world around us and use it to help us to understand everything we see and experience. However, our brains are also designed to work extremely quickly and in doing so they often take short-cuts.

Unfortunately, at times, these short-cuts can lead our brain to produce ideas and assumptions about the world that are not entirely accurate. Let’s call these incorrect ideas and assumptions, ‘Thinking Errors’.

It's extremely common for people to make thinking errors when gambling. This is partly because gambling involves probability, and our brains don’t always recognise how complex probability is. There are lots of different types of thinking errors that people make when gambling. One particularly common one is known as ‘The Gambler’s Fallacy’.

Here are some thoughts and phrases that are examples of the Gambler’s Fallacy:

“It hasn’t landed on red for a long time. Red is due for a win.”

“The machine will pay out soon”.

“I’m on a winning streak, so I should keep going.”

At a glance, these phrases can seem completely reasonable and are sometimes reasons that people place further bets. When we look closer, however, we will realise that, in each of those statements, the chance of winning the next bet (or any subsequent bets) is actually no greater than it was before.

As an example, imagine you flip a coin five times. On the first flip, the chance of it landing on heads will be 1 in 2. This seems simple enough. However, now imagine that on your second, third, and fourth flip, it continues to land on heads. This is where our brains often fall into this common thinking error known as the Gambler’s Fallacy.

In this scenario, the Gambler’s Fallacy often leads people to believe that the chance of the coin landing on heads (after four consecutive heads) has changed. For example, people might think, “Surely all the heads have been used up by now… Surely it won’t be a head again, it will have to be a tail next”.

However, in reality, the chance of the coin landing on heads remains exactly the same. It remains just as it did on the first flip… 1 in 2. This is because every flip is completely independent of the last. The coin has absolutely no idea what side it landed on last. Nor does it care!

Keeping this in mind, let’s take a look back at those three common phrases we mentioned earlier…

“It hasn’t landed on red for a long time. Red is due for a win.”

Our thinking error tells us it’s very likely that the ball will land on red soon. However, the roulette ball unfortunately has no idea what colour it landed on last. Every single time it is spun, it has the exact same chance of landing on black as it does of landing on red, irrespective of how many times it has landed on black in a row.

“The machine will pay out soon”.

Our thinking error tells us that pokies which haven’t won for a while are more likely to win soon. However, pokies essentially run on random number generators. Each number is randomly generated, completely independently from the last. This means that the time it takes to generate a win will remain entirely random and different machines of the same type are never any more likely to win than others at any given point in time.

“I’m on a winning streak, so I should keep going.”

Our thinking error tells us that our previous wins were all connected, and we are now likely to win again. However, each previous win was independent of the win before it, and any subsequent bets will remain independent of the previous bets. The chance of winning stays the same with every new bet, so there is no change in our likelihood of winning the next bet if we won the bet prior.

If you’ve ever experienced any of these thinking errors, you’re certainly not alone. They’re very common, and often we don’t notice thinking errors until they’re pointed out to us. Starting to recognise and understand thinking patterns like these can be a helpful first step in managing your gambling.

For more support on this topic or any gambling issue you might want to talk about, call Gambler’s Help 1800 858 858.

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