Skip to Main Content

Reacting to the recent: mental biases in gambling

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

If someone asked you to quickly recite everything that happened yesterday, how do you think you would go?

How about if you had to remember everything that happened last week, last month, or over the past year?

There’s a strong chance that you’d remember a bunch of key events or activities that were meaningful to you, but a huge number wouldn’t come to mind immediately — especially things that were less recent.

This is completely normal. While our brains are extremely clever, it’s simply not possible for us to quickly recall an almost-infinite number of events that we’re exposed to throughout our lives. We do, however, tend to be better at remembering and mentally imagining things that have happened more recently, compared to things that happened a while ago.

This tendency to remember recent events and feelings more easily can significantly impact our decision-making.

This is because, as humans, we tend to place greater weight on events and feelings that we can easily recall or imagine, and therefore we place greater weight on recent events.

It makes sense that our brains focus on the things we can easily recall… it’s an important mental shortcut. If our brains didn’t take shortcuts like this, we’d find ourselves spending endless hours thinking over the past and deliberating our every action! However, such short-cuts can also lead our brains to miss important information and create ideas and assumptions that are not completely accurate. Let’s call these ‘Thinking Errors’.

It's very common for people to make thinking errors when gambling.

There are many different types of thinking errors that impact decision-making in gambling. In two other articles, we talk about common thinking errors known as ‘The Gambler’s Fallacy’, and ‘Confirmation Bias’. In this article, we’ll discuss the thinking error known as ‘Recency Bias’.

‘Recency bias’ is the thinking error introduced above, which causes people to (unknowingly) place far greater importance on events that happened recently when evaluating situations and making decisions. Through this process, people often inadvertently disregard or forget about earlier events that were equally relevant.

This is seen in plenty of areas of life. For example, we often tend to recall a poorly written plotline that happens at the end of a movie more prominently than an equally poor plotline that occurs partway through the movie. Likewise, if we make several mistakes at the beginning of our workday but later in that same workday we begin to perform exceptionally well, we are likely to go home feeling better about our day than if those exact same mistakes had instead occurred at the end of the day.

Recency bias can impact gambling decisions in a similar way.

In sports betting, for example, our unintentional focus on recent events (such as recent team performance) can often lead us to unintentionally disregard other important information (such as information about the team, their skill, and/or their prior performance).

For example, imagine you’re following the AFL or cricket. A team who is usually considered the underdog wins a game. Soon after, they win their next game – but this time in an epic sporting moment (for example, a final-second goal or a five-wicket-haul). We so easily get caught up in the associated emotion and excitement of moments like these; in fact, it’s probably one of the things that makes sport so enjoyable to watch! However, amongst all this emotion and excitement, recent events like these become very prominent in our minds and often influence our later predictions, causing us to unintentionally disregard other relevant details.

For example, in focusing on the epic win, we might inadvertently forget or disregard the underdog’s lesser performance in multiple prior games within the same season or their poor historical performance against other teams.

The issue with all of this is that thinking errors can make us overconfident in our predictions, despite not having the full picture in mind. This overconfidence may then cause us to place riskier or larger bets, risking greater losses.

If your gambling has ever been affected by ‘Thinking errors’, you are certainly not alone. We often don’t notice them until they’re pointed out to us. Starting to recognise and understand thinking patterns and biases 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.


A young woman in denim jacket looking ahead with a smile

How to deal with guilt and shame from gambling

When trying to stop or reduce gambling, it is important to be aware of any thoughts that may lead to feelings of shame, which can lead to problems for mental health.

Read article
Illustration of brain

What triggers the urge to gamble?

Do you find that some days are harder to get through compared to others? That some days the urge to gamble might be stronger than others?

Read article
Closeup of a hand over another person's hand, providing reassurance

How to support a family member who is struggling with gambling

If you have a family member experiencing difficulties with gambling, you are in a unique position to provide assistance, support and help start recovery.

Read article
A young father holding his daughter, aged around four on a skateboard

7 ways gambling can harm you — and what to do about it

Gambling can result in a lot of harm, in fact, there are seven distinct ways in which people can experience gambling-related harm to varying degrees.

Read article