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Seeing what we want to see – thinking errors in gambling

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

Let’s face it... As humans, we tend to like being right.

… And sometimes we are right! However, as humans, we also undoubtedly spend plenty of time not knowing things, because we can’t possibly know everything about anything.

The reason that we can’t know everything is that there’s an endless amount of information in the world around us and it would be impossible for us to take it all in. As such, our brains are cleverly designed to take short-cuts that help us to process large amounts of information quickly.

If our brains didn’t take these clever little short-cuts, we’d spend hours and hours deliberating every little thing we do in our daily lives, and we’d never get anything done! However, despite being important, such short-cuts can also lead our brains to miss important information and generate some ideas and assumptions that are not completely accurate. We sometimes call these incorrect ideas and assumptions, ‘Thinking Errors’.

It's very common for people to make thinking errors when gambling, and there are many different types of thinking errors that people can make. In another article, we talk about a common thinking error known as ‘The Gambler’s Fallacy. In this article, we’ll talk about another common thinking error known as ‘Confirmation Bias’.

Here are some thoughts and phrases that could be examples of ‘Confirmation Bias’:

“They’re the best team. They only lost those games because of injuries and dodgy refs.”

“I’ve used this strategy before. I know it works.”

“The machines pay out more at night.”

Such thoughts and phrases can feel so reasonable and accurate that we don’t even question them. However, given that these thoughts and phrases can sometimes justify our decisions to place further bets or to place higher bets, it’s important to understand the role of ‘confirmation bias’.

‘Confirmation bias’ is a thinking error that causes humans to (unknowingly) favour information that supports the beliefs they already hold.

That is, we are naturally better and more interested in searching for, noticing, and remembering things that confirm the stuff we were already thinking.

In other words, our thinking errors cause us to focus on information that fits neatly into what we already know and believe, and to inadvertently ignore contradictory information.

Let’s look at those previous examples and understand how ‘confirmation bias’ fits in:

“They’re the best team. They only lost those games because of injuries and dodgy refs.”

… It’s natural to have a favourite team, or to have a team that we feel most confident in. However, in this example, our thinking error causes us to focus only on information that confirms our beliefs about our chosen team being the best, and to disregard other evidence.

That is, when we are given evidence that our favoured team actually might not be the best (i.e. our team recently lost some games), we find ourselves trying to discount that evidence.

For example, although our team’s good players were injured, and even though there was some dodgy refereeing, there were probably other factors that also contributed to the loss.

Maybe the opposition was playing unexpectedly well, and our players’ injuries resulted from them working extra hard in the face of this expected competition? Maybe our team’s remaining players had a bad game that day? Maybe the referees made dodgy decisions for both teams that day, but we only noticed when those decisions impacted our team? Our thinking errors cause us to ignore, forget, or discount such information, leading to over-confidence in some potentially biased beliefs.

“I’ve used this strategy before. I know it works.”

…When a betting strategy works, we will likely remember it. However, our thinking error means that we typically forget some of those times in between the wins; we forget how many times our strategy actually didn’t work for us. This can cause us to feel over-confident in our strategy and can lead to poorer betting decisions.

“The machines pay out more at night.”

… Such beliefs often come from having experienced a win, or a few wins, at a particular time of day. In this case, we likely had a few good wins at night at some point. We then build up the belief that the machines work best for us at night and begin subconsciously noticing all the times we win at night and all of the times we don’t win during the day. We likewise disregard the times we won at other random times of the day and we disregard all the times that we lost at night.

If your gambling has ever been affected by confirmation bias, you’re certainly not alone. Thinking errors like confirmation bias are very common, and often we 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.


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