Anyone who has worked with people who gamble come to realize that they often have a number of erroneous beliefs and attitudes about control, luck, prediction and chance. The main purpose of this chapter is to draw a connection between the folk beliefs of the individual who gambles and the reality of the physical world, to illustrate where people make errors and to explore the origin of these errors.
The basic problem is that people who gamble often believe they can beat the odds and win. Even those who know the odds still believe they can win. Turner (2000) has argued that much of this is the result of experience with random events: random events fool people into believing they can predict their random outcomes.
Another problem is that the human mind is predisposed to find patterns and does so very efficiently. For example, natural formations like the “face” in the Cydonia Mensae region of Mars or the Sleeping Giant peninsula on the shore of Lake Superior in Northern Ontario, which have human-like features, are interpreted as images of people. In addition, deviations from expected results, such as winning or losing streaks, are often perceived as too unlikely to be a coincidence. As an example of our willingness of find patterns, a few years ago Eric Von Daniken (1969) wrote a book in which he claimed to have found evidence for the influence of extraterrestrial beings on human history. Much of his “evidence” was based on such things as the coincidental similarity between a rock drawing in the Sahara desert and the appearance of a modern astronaut’s space suit. The book has sold 7 million copies, testifying to the ease with which people can be swayed by the argument that patterns cannot be random coincidence. Some people believe that “random” events have no cause and are thus mysterious. As a result, they may believe there is a greater opportunity to influence the random outcome through prayer or similar means. In the past, some religions have used dice games to divine the will of the gods (Gabriel, 2003). Related to this is the notion that everything happens for a reason and thus random outcomes must contain a message.
Some people who gamble believe that there is no such thing as a random event and that they can therefore figure out how to win. In a sense, they are correct in that all random events are the result of physical forces or mathematical algorithms. In practice, however, they are completely wrong. A random event occurs when a difficult problem (e.g., controlling the exact speed, movement and height of a dice throw) is combined with a complex process (e.g., the dice rolling across a table and bouncing against a bumper on its far side). This combination leads to complete uncertainty as to what will actually occur.
Randomness is a mathematical concept used to model the real world. The fact that random events can be described mathematically does not mean they are deterministic, nor does it mean they are non-deterministic—their predictability is irrelevant. To call something random simply means that the observer does not know what the outcome will be (De Finetti, 1990). Most events that we think random are, in fact, deterministic in nature, but so complex that they are impossible to predict. For example, where a ball lands on a roulette wheel is directly related to the amount of force used to throw the ball and the speed of the spinning wheel. In practice, however, it is impossible to predict where the ball will land. The probability of different random events is not equal; some events are more likely to occur than others. This is especially true when we consider the chances of joint events (e.g., three win symbols showing on a slot machine) or the chance of one event compared to all other events (e.g., holding a winning vs. a losing lottery ticket). Taken together, however, the probabilities of all possible events must add up to 100% and each of those percentage points is equally likely.
Unfortunately, many people hold erroneous ideas about the nature of random chance. The best way to get a feeling for what lies at the root of these misconceptions is to explore the basic, interrelated concepts upon which most gambling activity depends: probability and randomness. The goal of this chapter is to help the reader understand probability well enough to identify the errors in thinking of people with a gambling problem and to help the therapist communicate with them. Misunderstanding probability may not be the main cause of an individual’s gambling problem. Turner, Littman-Sharp and Zangeneh, (2006) found that problematic gambling was more strongly related to depression, stressful life experiences and a reliance on escape to cope with stress than it was to erroneous beliefs. Correcting misconceptions, however, may be an important part of relapse prevention. If a client really believes that it is possible to beat the odds, the odds are that he or she will try. In addition, the use of escape methods to deal with stress is significantly correlated with erroneous beliefs, suggesting that using gambling to escape negative moods may be directly tied to the belief that one can beat the odds (Turner et al., 2002). Furthermore, it is argued that prevention requires disseminating accurate information about the reality of gambling and the way these games can fool individuals into believing they can win. A second goal of this chapter is to de-mystify random events.
The following parts of this chapter:
- provide a list of some of the more common misconceptions that people who gamble have about the nature of random chance;
- give definitions and examples of probability, odds and other key concepts related to random chance;
- examine, from a theoretical point of view, how a mechanistic universe filled with cause-and-effect relationships can produce random events;
- describe how specific types of games produce random events, including how slot machines work; and
- discuss the origins of some erroneous beliefs.
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