Gambling, Superstition and Bingo

A psychological perspective, by Professor Mark Griffiths of the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University.


While luck tends to even itself out over the long-run, people naturally focus on the short-run and on their fluctuations in fortune. Because gambling involves randomness, people will often blame or chalk up their luck to some random event that coincided with how they fared at a certain gambling session. When people experience long winning or losing streaks while gambling, they then evoke what they believe to be a causal factor - luck. A lucky person is someone who wins many times in succession. The same will happen when it is your lucky day with your lucky number, lucky colour, lucky table or lucky dealer. Most of these lucky' events are little more than 'illusory correlations' such as noticing that the last three winning visits to the casino were all when you wore a particular item of clothing or it was on a particular day of the week. These illusory correlations can sometimes turn into superstitious behaviours.

Very superstitious...

Gambling and superstition have often been thought of as highly related. Anecdotal evidence shows that even the most skilful of gamblers can hold superstitious beliefs and the fallibility of human reason is the greatest single source of that superstitious belief. Sometimes referred to as a belief in 'magic', superstition can cover many spheres such as lucky or unlucky actions, events, numbers and/or sayings, a belief in astrology, the occult and the paranormal and/or ghosts. In the gambling context, I have argued that it's best to view superstition as a belief that a given action can bring good luck or bad luck when there are no rational or generally acceptable grounds for such a belief.

Surveys suggest that around a third of the British population are superstitious. The most often reported superstitious behaviours are avoiding walking under ladders, touching wood and throwing salt over your shoulder (when spilt). There's also a stereotypical view that there are certain groups within society who tend to hold more superstitious beliefs than what may be considered the norm. These include those involved within sport, the acting profession, miners, fishermen and (of course) gamblers.

Research has shown that the majority of the population tend to have what are called 'half-beliefs'. On the whole, people are basically rational and don't really believe in the effects of superstition. However, in times of uncertainty, stress, and/or perceived helplessness, they seek to regain personal control over events by means of superstitious belief. This often happens in gambling situations.

The Dutch psychologist, Professor Willem Wagenaar proposed that in the absence of a known cause, gamblers attribute events to abstract causes like luck and chance. Professor Wagenaar differentiates between luck and chance and suggests that luck is more related to an unexpected positive result whereas chance is related to surprising coincidences. Other psychologists suggest that luck may be thought of as the property of a person whereas chance is thought to be concerned with unpredictability.

Gamblers appear to exhibit a belief that they have control over their own luck. They may knock on wood to avoid bad luck or carry an object such as a rabbit's foot for good luck. Another US psychologist, Professor Ellen Langer, argued that a belief in luck and superstition not only accounts for causal explanations when playing games of chance, but may also provide a desired element of personal control.

Behavioural trends

One of the most interesting pieces of research that I carried out involved the examination of superstitious behaviours among bingo players. So are gamblers really superstitious? The study I carried out with Carolyn Bingham here at Nottingham Trent University examined the beliefs that bingo players have regarding superstition and luck and how these beliefs are related to their bingo playing behaviour. In a study of over 400 bingo players, we found significant relationships in several areas. Many bingo players reported beliefs in luck and superstition, however, a greater percentage of bingo players reported having 'everyday' superstitious beliefs, rather than those concerned with gambling activity.

We found that 81 percent of bingo players had at least one superstitious belief. These beliefs included not opening an umbrella indoors (49 percent), not walking under ladders (55 percent), not putting new shoes on a table (60 percent), touching wood (50 percent) and not passing someone else on the stairs. However, only ten percent of the bingo players surveyed were superstitious while actually gambling (with a further 13 percent of bingo players claiming they were 'sometimes' superstitious while gambling). This was reflected in such behaviours and beliefs as having a lucky night of the week (five percent), having a lucky friend (four percent), having a lucky mascot (six percent), sitting in the same seat for luck (21 percent), believing certain numbers are lucky or unlucky (13 percent), and changing pens or 'dobbers' to counter bad luck (29 percent). We also found that 27 percent of bingo players believed in winning and losing streaks.

When examining our findings in greater detail, we also found that the heaviest spending bingo players were:

• more likely to be superstitious while playing;
• more likely to have a lucky friend;
• more likely to have a lucky seat;
• and more likely to believe that some numbers are lucky/unlucky.

Those who reported regularly spending Ј20 or more in one hingo hall visit were defined as 'heavy spenders' - 29 percent of the sample - whereas those spending less than Ј20 per bingo hall visit were defined as iight spenders' - 71 percent of the sample.

However, some casino gamblers consider that going on the same night with the same friends, or sitting in the same seat are not associated with luck, but merely part of a 'familiar' social routine. It's clear that what some people deem as luck or superstition is not universal across gamblers.

Even if people don't have strongly held superstitious beliefs or lucky traits, there is some evidence that adopting them adds more fun and excitement to the game being played ("It's my lucky night", "I'm on a winning streak", "I'm in my lucky seat", or "My stars said I'd win").

It's clear that a large percentage of bingo players in our study reported beliefs in luck and superstition and that having superstitious beliefs may be simply part of the thrill. What we can't say is whether other types of gambler would behave in the same way but my own observations in casinos throughout the world is that many skilful players have lucky charms and/or have superstitious beliefs.

We also have no idea of whether the medium of gambling has any impact on superstitious behaviour. For instance, does playing bingo on the Internet make people more or less superstitious? Alternatively, it may be that superstitious belief impacts on the likelihood of gambling within a particular gaming platform. For instance, are superstitious people more likely to play offline bingo rather than online? Empirical research in the area is lacking but as bingo (online and offline) increases in popularity, research will no doubt follow.

PROFESSOR MARK GRIFFITHS is Professor of Gambling Studies at the International Gaming Research Unit at Nottingham Trent University.
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