The Cognitive Psychology of Lottery Gambling

Numerous studies have been conducted on the topic of the psychology of gambling. Even though gambling is a past time for some people it can easily get out of control and lead to disaster with not only financial loses but socio-psychological consequences as well.


Gambling is the wagering of money or something of material value (referred to as “the stakes”) on an event with an uncertain outcome with the primary intent of winning additional money and/or material goods. Typically, the outcome of the wager is evident within a short period.
Studies show that though many people participate in gambling as a form of recreation or even as a means to gain an income, gambling, like any behavior which involves variation in brain chemistry, can become a psychologically addictive and harmful behavior in some people. Reinforcement schedules may also make gamblers persist in gambling even after repeated losses.
The Russian writer Dostoevsky (himself a problem gambler) portrays in his novella The Gambler the psychological implications of gambling and how gambling can affect gamblers. He also associates gambling and the idea of “getting rich quick”, suggesting that Russians may have a particular affinity for gambling. Dostoevsky shows the effect of betting money for the chance of gaining more in 19th-century Europe. The association between Russians and gambling has fed legends of the origins of Russian roulette.[1]
Despite the current popularity of the UK National, psychologists have tended to neglect lottery play. This review provides a summary of current research findings and outlines the main cognitive theories of gambling as related to non-pathological lottery play. A discussion of various biases and irrational thinking patterns typically found in lottery gambling will be given. These will include the misunderstanding of lottery odds, a susceptibility to the gambler’s fallacy and cognitive entrapment, a belief in hot and cold numbers, unrealistic optimism, a belief in personal luck, superstitious thinking, the illusion of control, the erroneous perception of near misses, a susceptibility to prize size and rollover effects, the framing of gambling outcomes and finally, the influence of social factors on lottery play. It is concluded that the psychology of lottery play needs a more unified theory which whilst largely cognitive in emphasis, should also incorporate social motivations such as those inherent in syndicate based lottery play.[2]
A number of recent studies have shown there may be a strong cognitive bias in explaining persistent gambling. Theories that have been put forward include the illusion of control, cognitive regret, biased evaluations and the psychology of the near miss. Two exploratory studies examining the acquisition, development and maintenance of gambling behaviour involving adolescent fruit machine gamblers were carried out. Those factors which directly relate to the cognitive biases (notably erroneous beliefs about skill) during gambling activity are discussed with reference to the above cognitive influences. [3]
A sample of 38 regular and heavy gamblers, recruited through advertisements and not seeking treatment, were asked to describe special strategies, techniques or rituals that they used to increase their chances of winning at gambling in an open-ended interview. The mean South Oaks Gambling Screen Score for the sample was 7.7 with 64% of the sample scoring higher than 4. Their responses reflected multiple means by which the individual believed they were able to control (i.e., active illusory control, passive illusory control), reframe (i.e., interpretive control), or predict (i.e., probability control, predictive control) gambling outcomes. A larger number of cognitive distortions was associated with playing games in which skill was potentially a component (e.g., cards, sports) than in non-skill games (e.g., lotteries) as well as a positive family history of gambling. There were no sex differences. Implications of these findings for the cognitive psychopathology of gambling are discussed. [4]
The U.K. National Lottery and instant scratchcards are now well established yet there is still little empirical research on the players. This study was an exploratory investigation of the psychosocial effects of these forms of gambling among adolescents (n=1195; aged 11– to 15-years-old). Using a questionnaire, it was shown that large numbers of adolescents were taking part in these activities. There was a significant link between parental and child gambling with most lottery tickets and scratchcards being bought for the adolescents by their parents. Results showed that many adolescents thought they would win lots of money on these activities and that these activities were in general not perceived to be forms of gambling. Six per cent of adolescents fulfiled the DSM-IV-J criteria for pathological gambling, the majority of which were males.[5]
This study examines the cognitive and social psychological factors underlying UK National Lottery play. A total of 384 respondents were asked about their own lottery playing behaviours, their knowledge of lottery odds and their beliefs about the role of skill, chance, luck and optimism in lottery play. Using hypothetical scenarios, respondents were also asked to rate the likelihood of winning the lottery jackpot (matching all six numbers) with number combinations reflecting different levels of apparent randomness, previous matches, near misses and prize size manipulations. Frequency of lottery play was found to be positively correlated with age, income, Instants scratchcard play, gambling on horse/greyhound racing, the football pools, and bingo as well as with beliefs about skill, luck and optimism. Frequency of lottery play was negatively correlated with general education and estimate of relative win likelihoods based on the perceived randomness of number combinations. Planned contrasts revealed that compared to individual (non-syndicate) players, syndicate lottery players played more regularly and gambled more on the football pools. Results are discussed in the light of current cognitive theories surrounding the misperception of probability and their relation to lottery play and in the need for future models to recognise the social factors inherent in syndicate-based lottery participation.[6]

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All the studies conducted on the topic of gambling and its psychological effects discovered not only the changes which happen in the gambler’s brain while gambling but also that family surroundings and the influence of parents play an important role in a development of a potential gambler.


[2] The Cognitive Psychology of Lottery Gambling: A Theoretical Review by: Paul Rogers
[3] The cognitive psychology of gambling by: Mark D. Griffiths
[4] Cognitive Distortions in Heavy Gambling, by: Tony Toneatto, Tamara Blitz-Miller, Kim Calderwood, Rosa Dragonetti and Andrea Tsanos
[5] The acquisition, development and maintenance of lottery and scratchcard gambling in adolescence by: Richard T.A. Wood and Mark D. Griffiths
[6] “It Could Be Us!”: Cognitive and Social Psychological Factors in UK National Lottery Play by: Paul Rogers, Paul Webley


AUTHOR: Josip Ivanovic