How do we make decisions quickly when placing bets in a casino?
Like many tourists, Rebecca and Catherine always wanted to visit Las Vegas. They took in the dazzling sights of the bright lights, enjoyed the stage magic and drifted into one of large casinos. When they walked into the casino they were amazed by the sounds and lights. Catherine had always enjoyed the game of roulette so headed straight to the roulette table. Catherine placed three consecutive bets, losing all three. Watching this Rebecca quietly said to Catherine “Maybe you should try another game, the odds are against you winning.” To this Catherine replied “No, I have lost three times I am overdue a win, I will win soon.”
When we make decisions, we like to think that we make all of our decisions rationally. Casino environments are designed to be one of the most complex environments that we ever encounter, there are colourful, flashing lights, loud machines playing music and people cheering. It is hard to deal with the environment, tune-out and make clear decisions. To deal with complex environments the brain has developed a number of judgement heuristics. Judgement heuristics are mental short cuts that enable us to make quick decisions whilst ignoring part of the decision-making environment. One classic example of a judgement heuristic was given by Catherine above when speaking to Rebecca at the roulette table. The aptly named gambler’s fallacy, as demonstrated above can also be seen in the following classic scenario. Imagine that someone is flipping a coin multiple times, the coin lands head side up three times in a row. Someone watching the coin flipping is asked to guess whether the next coin will land head side up or tail side up. If the person guesses tail side up they are using the gambler’s fallacy, a belief that randomness follows a pattern. Many people believe that for the coin flipping to be truly random the outcome of a sequence of five coin flips must be something like HEADS-TAILS-HEADS-TAILS-HEADS. If an outcome of five flips is HEADS-HEADS-HEADS-HEADS-HEADS then the coin is overdue to land with the tail side up otherwise this is not random. The belief in a pattern of randomness persists in most areas of life.
In a field study by researchers at the University of Navada 18 hours worth of overhead security camera footage of a roulette table was obtained from a large Reno casino, consisting for 904 bets (Sundali & Croson, 2006). The researchers watched all of the bets and coded the patterns of betting for every gambler that sat down at the table. On an American-style roulette table there are 36 different sections of the roulette wheel, coloured as red or black (European-style roulette has 37 sections). Players can bet on more than one number and colour by placing their chips on the corners or side of each of the numbered squares. If a gambler bets randomly then after the researchers coded each bet there should be a 2.6% chance that a bet would fall on each number. The researchers found that after an outcome of RED-RED-RED gamblers responded with a gambler’s fallacy type logic by betting on BLACK. Like Catherine above and the coin flipping above, the gamblers believed in a representation, or pattern of randomness.
A study by Gal and Baron in 1996 investigated the gambler’s fallacy in a laboratory-based experiment. Gal and Baron examined whether a change in betting strategy was due to boredom by asking participants why they choose to bet in the way that they did. Most of the participants in the Gal and Baron study responded by saying that they were attempting to maximize their earnings by using the gambler’s fallacy-type logic. It would appear that the gambler’s fallacy is not simply caused by boredom.
Besides gambling at the roulette table other casino games in which heuristics play a major role include the craps table and fruit machines. One prominent heuristic at the craps table is the belief in illusory correlations. When rolling the dice at the craps table gamblers often blow on the dice for luck or roll the dice softly in the belief that a low number will come up, and roll the dice harder when they want a higher number (Griffths. 1994). These gamblers believe that if a number comes up that they did not want then they did not through the dice hard or soft enough.
Cognitive short cuts as heuristics are used in every area of life where decisions need to be made. With respect to gambling, heuristics have been documented in fruit machine users, and at the poker, blackjack, roulette and craps tables. Even when betting on horse or dog races gamblers reliably use these mental short cuts (Terrell, 1998). I have highlighted two of uses of heuristics above, namely the gambler’s fallacy and illusory control. Like Catherine above many people fall for these heuristics and make sub-optimal decisions based on incorrect beliefs. When it comes to gambling, there are two ways to avoid these cognitive traps. If gambling alone take your time to think about the decisions that you want to make. When gambling in a group of with a friend you could listen to the advice of your friend as Catherine should have above.