As I was driving home from work tonight I managed to listen to a really great episode of Ideas on CBC radio. The show talked about how a study claiming psychic powers were real managed to get published in a reputable psychology journal because the results were statistically significant at the 95% confidence level.
This led to a crisis in the field and the realization that we can’t be 95% confident in the 95% confidence level because scientists cherry pick which way they’re going to analyze the data, so that 95% is a biased sample of what they’re trying to measure (a phenomenon known as p-hacking). Kind of reminds me of how people only report their highest ever score when telling their IQ.
It turns out that only about one third to one half of all psychological claims proven at the 95% confidence level can be replicated by independent researchers. In other words, there’s regression to the mean.
And it’s not just psychology but almost the entire field of science is afflicted by this replication crisis.
The psychological question of what makes people want to play casino games has never been too much of a mystery. Casino environments are basically built to give us little surges of adrenaline and dopamine. There are exciting sounds and visuals on gaming machines signifying victory; there’s a thrill in raking in a small stack of chips at a poker table, even if you’ve lost your previous 10 hands; somebody is always winning somewhere, effectively giving you continual previews of the joy and excitement you too could feel. The incentive, so to speak, is right there in front of you (or rather, all around you).
When it comes to sport and event betting, however, motivation and incentive are a little bit murkier. Next to casino play, this side of the gambling business is positively dull: casino sportsbooks are essentially more depressing versions of sports bars, and betting slips are about as bland to look at as grocery store receipts. Nothing jingles or flashes if you win, and you aren’t immediately gifted with colorful tokens representing your winnings. So what exactly makes people want to bet? We’re digging into some of the psychological motivators and reasons below.
The Same Old Reasons
There are actually some fairly academic looks into the psychology of sports betting, and really they turn up the same old reasons behind gambling that most of us are at least vaguely familiar with – the things that are somewhat foundational, impacting us before the excitement of a casino environment even comes into play. Most notably, it’s risk and reward. The risk of gambling produces adrenaline in and of itself; we almost inherently like putting something on the line and not knowing if it will pay off (though interestingly, men seem to enjoy this more than women, based on studies). As for reward, it’s fairly self-explanatory. We also enjoy gambling not because of the activity itself, but because we like the possibility of the rewards it could bring about. The most basic way to understand this psychology is just to think about why people keep buying lottery tickets – but it factors into sports betting as well.
Belief In Knowledge
With more specific regard to sports betting, there is also an element of the psychology that ties into people’s knowledge of the subject at hand. We tend to bet on sports (or events, politics, etc.) that we’re familiar with – that we think we know, and by extension, can predict. Studies have actually indicated that having greater knowledge of a given subject doesn’t necessarily correlate to more success betting, but that’s a hard thing for us to tell ourselves. If we feel like experts about something, we want to put that expertise to use in a practical, rewarding manner – just as we would in everyday life or with a work-related skill.
More and more we’re also seeing betting twisted into something resembling a game, which in turn allows bettors to feel as if knowledge and skill are playing a role. It’s no accident that the budding online gambling culture in New Jersey is compared and in some cases directly tied to the existing daily fantasy sports industry in the U.S. Before betting legalization started, daily fantasy was effectively taking advantage of legal loopholes and allowing people to gamble on outcomes within the boundaries of fantasy sports. This is a game, to most people – one that we at least perceive is decided to some extent based on our skills, knowledge, and decisions. The more opportunities we have to bet in this fashion, the more likely competitive instincts are to come into play. Simply put, we bet because we feel like we’re just playing games we know how to win.
Desire To Improve
There is also an element of loss aversion present in the psychology of sports betting. It may not get us to start betting in the first place, but it can certainly get us to keep at it once we’ve started, just as it’s so often responsible for keeping someone sitting at a poker table for too long. The idea, for those who aren’t familiar, is simply that the pain of losing is greater than the joy of winning. We care more when we lose a bet than when we win one. And because losing is essentially inherently more likely in betting, we have an easy recipe for staying interested. The more bets we lose, the less we want to walk away, and the surer we become that the next one will be a winner.