Gambler’s Fallacy: Proof Is In The Brain
This cartoon illustrates an individual playing a risky game of Russian roulette with some faulty (and dangerous) reasoning that because he’s been lucky 5 times so far, then he’ll prevail on the 6th time as well. For years I’ve heard of the ‘gambler’s fallacy’, in which a gambler believes that given enough throws of the dice, turns of the wheel (roulette) or push of a button (slot machine) that they are just ‘one more time’ away from the big win. Understanding that each event is independent of another and completely random according to statisticians did not make a difference in my gambler’s mind, but instead kept me playing long past what a reasonable, non-addicted person would play. The ‘near-misses’ excited that portion of my brain that craved the reward and euphoria that would come, if I only played long enough and was patient enough to see that jackpot come through…one more time. Seeing this recent article about the ‘gambler’s fallacy’ and the explanation for why gamblers believe with ‘all their heart’ that things will change if they play long enough also explains on a personal level why I had such a struggle to pass my statistics classes; my inability or unwillingness to accept that gambling events are random and independent of each other!
Reading Jason Beem’s new book “Southbound” brought to mind one of my past memories (and yet another gambler’s fallacy) that if I just bet enough money, I would replicate my first ‘lucky’ bet years ago when I experienced my first time to the track. To this day (over 30 years ago) I don’t recall the specific details other than I had placed a $2 bet on some horses and in disgust after the race, threw the ticket on the table and said “Darn, I picked the right horses but they didn’t come in in the right order.” One of the guys I was with picked up the ticket, looked at the board and said “What? You did WIN with this ticket.” and he accompanied me to the cashier, who paid me $196 on a $2 bet. I had no clue and years later when I went to my last horse race at Del Mar and tried to repeat my previous ‘success’, all I did was lose a lot of money because I picked all the ‘wrong’ horses. Yes, it’s a perfect example of doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results. Thankfully, I did not have the opportunity years earlier to visit the racetrack again, but I’m sure that had I done so I would have merely sped up my gambling addiction about 20 years!
In searching for images to best describe my words, I ran across another image that brought another set of memories rushing back and yet again, proves that a gambler in action CANNOT believe that each pull, each throw is but a separate and random event. One night, I was sitting at a dollar reversible video poker machine and was dealt the Ace, the King, the Queen, and Jack of Spades. The two distinct memories of that experience that I recall was that I sat paralyzed for 30 minutes before hitting the button, planning how to spend the $50,000 jackpot and then, another 30 minutes berating myself when instead of the 10 of Spades, I was dealt an 8 of Spades and ‘if only’ I had just pressed the button right away. Yes, the world and mind of a compulsive gambler spent in the ‘could’ve, should’ve, would’ve’ world of denial…that was me!
For those who have never suffered from a gambling addiction, it is hard to fathom how an individual could sit there at a machine for hours, how they could spend an entire paycheck in a few hours of gambling, how they could be so irresponsible that they couldn’t see what they were doing to their families. Yet, that is the reality for a person who becomes addicted to gambling that they are just one big win away from paying all the bills, replacing all the funds ‘borrowed’ to fund their gambling, and settling all their ‘scores’. The reality is that even when a gambler does win, there is never going to be ‘enough’ money to entice a gambler to walk away from the bet. It may take going to jail for stealing from their employer, being evicted from their home for not paying their rent/morgage, going hungry for the last few days before the next payday, sleeping in one’s car (if it hasn’t already been repossessed by the title company), or finding oneself in the mental ward for attempting suicide. See, for a gambler, it’s not about the overdose or the blackout of an alcoholic that brings about the realization that their behavior is ‘not normal’. A gambler in addict mode will continue to push that proverbial line in the sand, not recognizing the consequences to their actions until they hit what is ‘their bottom’ (whatever it might be), that may result in their seeking help.
Have you or a loved one suffered from a gambling addiction? If so, have you ever found yourself playing the odds, as in pushing the envelope one too many times? Gamblers are not the only addicts that have encountered an experience that tests the ‘gambler’s fallacy’. An alcoholic that has ‘just’ a couple of drinks and chooses to drive under the influence because they’ve done it all the time and never been caught is a prime example of challenging the odds. The shoplifter goes into the wrong store at the wrong time, having shoplifted countless times and never gotten caught…also, an example of pushing the envelope. The individual looking for a casual encounter to fulfill that need of being loved, finds it in the arms of the wrong person that might be out looking for a far more dangerous thrill that night, never believing that it might be their last fling.
If I’ve touched on an example or incident that has impacted your life because you chose to challenge the odds, I would love to hear from you.