The illusion of control in gambling

Have you ever felt that—when it comes to playing slots or betting on sports games, for example—you have a special edge? One that gives you a bit of an advantage, or the ability to predict or impact the outcome of the situation?

If so, you’ve experienced the illusion of control—a psychological phenomenon in which individuals believe they have the power to influence outcomes that are, in reality, determined by chance.

In gambling, the illusion of control is particularly dangerous. Not only does it give you the false belief that you can control the situation and create your own winning outcome, it can lead you to make decisions that are damaging to your finances, relationships, and mental health.

How does the illusion of control affect those who gamble?

A study from the University of Deusto in Spain found a concerning correlation between the illusion of control and excessive or problem gambling. According to that research, those who gamble more than they want actually have a higher sense of perceived control over both gambling outcomes and day-to-day situations.

In other words, those who often experience the illusion of control are more likely to struggle with managing their gambling, and can end up letting gambling take control over them.

As the Duesto study describes it, gambling feeds directly into the illusion of control. It’s designed to encourage you to believe you can “beat the odds,” and control the outcome of the slot machine, the sports game, or the roulette wheel, for example. But in reality, we have no control over casino machines, online games, or sports players.

Slot machines are a clear example of casinos leveraging gamblers’ illusion of control

In her work, “Addiction by Design,” New York University associate professor Natasha Dow Schüll describes how slot machines are intentionally engineered to offer small-stakes bets and frequent minor wins—giving gamblers the impression they’re always on the verge of “winning big.”

This false sense of control and empty anticipation of a major payout is just as strategic as the casino’s layout, where slot machines are positioned to encourage players to bet over and over.

The illusion of control drives sports betting, too

The illusion of control isn’t confined to casino floors. You’ll find it in arenas, living rooms, apps, and more, in the form of sports betting.

A 2021 study published in the Journal of Gambling Studies found that, compared to other forms of gambling, sports betting is the most strongly linked to the illusion of control. As a result, those who bet on sports games are more likely than other gamblers to believe they can “beat the odds.”

The Washington Post describes the illusion of control as the “special edge” sports bettors believe they have because they study teams, players, and statistics. But what these bettors fail to realize is that hundreds or thousands of factors are continually at play, far beyond a player's ability and past performance. In the end, the illusion of control causes many bettors to lose more than they expect—or can afford.

When it comes to gambling, there is one factor you can control: Getting support

Gambling can negatively affect your finances, your career, and your relationships. That’s what makes the illusion of control—and the impact of problem gambling—so significant.

The first step towards taking control of your gambling is to acknowledge the truth: The only real thing we can control is ourselves. What you do with that truth is up to you.

You can set personal limits for yourself, and work to change your habits. You can quit today and never pick it up again, or you can give yourself a monthly budget. You can even ask for accountability from friends and family who care about you.

Or, you can get support from the Nebraska Problem Gambling Assistance Program (NPGAP)

At the NPGAP, we offer free, confidential support for both those who gamble and their families. When you call 1-833-BETOVER (238-6837) or text 402-806-7344, you’ll be connected to professional assistance, helpful resources, and a personalized plan you can take action on right away.

You can’t change the outcome of a sports game or predict when the slot machine will pay out. But you can change how you approach gambling. And here at the NPGAP, we’re standing by and ready to help.


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