Gambling is a widespread recreational behaviour that can become dysfunctional in a minority of individuals. As a result, it offers unique insights into the fallibility of human decision-making mechanisms and has significant therapeutic potential. Research on gambling can therefore address two broad questions: 1) how do people develop erroneous cognitions that sustain gambling behaviour, and 2) what is it about this particular behaviour that makes it so susceptible to pathological development?
The answer to the first question appears to lie in human error proneness when processing probabilities and judging randomness. As classic experiments from experimental psychology show, people are notoriously bad at generating and recognising random sequences such as coin tosses (Tversky & Kahneman 1971).
Other features of certain gambling games may also foster erroneous beliefs. For example, a game that is highly repetitive – such as a slot machine or poker – can lead gamblers to over-estimate their chances of winning. Additionally, the way in which a game is presented can influence whether or not gamblers perceive the game to be fair.
Moreover, neuroimaging studies suggest that the brain reward system is particularly receptive to rewards associated with skill-oriented behaviours. However, when a task involves no skill at all, the brain reward system responds inappropriately: it values ‘near-miss’ outcomes that would appear to be full-misses to non-gamblers.
These erroneous cognitions are maintained in gamblers by an illusion of control. Research has shown that gamblers who experience a loss often return the following day in an attempt to get even (“chasing losses”). They may lie to family members or therapists to conceal their involvement with gambling and have jeopardised relationships, employment or educational opportunities, or committed illegal acts to finance their habit. Problem gamblers also exhibit an elated or depressed mood, or experience anxiety, irritability or depression, while engaging in their gambling activities.
Interventions to promote mathematical literacy among gamblers typically frame the distortions that characterise their gambling behaviour as an expression of a general lack of trust in mathematics. While this might make sense for a non-gambler, it seems unlikely to convince gamblers that their distortions are not caused by an inherent lack of mathematical knowledge but rather by incorrect application and interpretation. This is why interventions that reduce gambling to a series of mathematical models and numbers do not always achieve their intended outcomes, and why it is important for researchers to consider the social context in which gambling takes place when designing intervention programmes.