In their exploration of the connection between gambling addiction and distorted cognitive processes, the study researchers were on the lookout for a type of psychological projection known as “probability matching.” On any particular turn of the wheel, roll of the dice or spin of the symbols, the odds of success are completely determined and predictable, based on the design of the game and the physical characteristics of the game medium. But if probability matching is occurring, problem gamblers may believe they can perceive a hidden order that transcends the basic mathematics. They may convince themselves they can decode the subtle patterns and predict success in a way that defies logic. They assign a probability for victory that does not align with reality, in other words, and are unable to perceive the irrationality that underlies their calculations.

The researchers set up laboratory casinos and invited 161 gamblers to play. Ninety-one of the study participants were classified as “habitual gamblers,” meaning they were already addicted or at risk of becoming addicted if their behavior were to continue unabated.

‘Probability Matching’

Hardcore and recreational gamblers alike were asked to play a series of games on two slot machines, which offered a 67 percent and 33 percent chance of winning, respectively. To see if probability matching would lead problem gamblers astray, participants were told ahead of time that the machines would operate in predictable ways, giving them incentive to search for patterns as they continued to gamble. Eventually, the participants were interviewed to see which of the two slot machines they preferred, and naturally all would be expected to select the one that was winnable two-thirds of the time.

One machine clearly delivered more winners than the other, and that became obvious to the casual gamblers. But in a surprising number of instances, the habitual gamblers expressed a preference for the less charitable slot machine, which indicates their evaluations were being skewed by psychological factors. When told the machines could be “figured out,” they became convinced they could recognize patterns that didn’t exist, and this interfered with their ability to distinguish truth from fiction. Only cognitive distortion could explain why some gamblers chose the wrong slot machine as the most likely to deliver winning combinations, since the actual success ratios of the two one-armed bandits possible were nowhere close to being comparable.

This is not the first time a peer-reviewed scientific research project has found evidence of defective thinking patterns in problem gamblers. A 2008 study examined the gambling habits of 677 sets of twins and discovered a greater incidence of cognitive dysfunction among those who gambled more heavily in comparison to their brothers and sisters. Measureable brain differences between twins suggests the cognitive difficulties found are not genetic but related to experience, meaning they develop in response to continued gambling instead of provoking that type of behavior.

Overcoming the Mind Tricks

It is known that problem gamblers lack impulse control, and this may be related to their inability to perceive reality. If they are seeing things that aren’t really there, or not grasping the true risk of failure associated with their behavior, it could encourage spontaneous actions that seem entirely inappropriate from an outside perspective.

Fortunately, problem gamblers can and do respond well to treatment, including cognitive behavioral therapy. Practitioners of this approach teach people how to alter their thinking patterns so they don’t continue to react to stimuli in the same way. Cognitive behavioral therapy restores self-control and reduces impulsivity in gamblers seeking escape from the self-destructive patterns that have brought ruination.

If cognitive distortions play as big a role in gambling disorders as this new research suggests, it is easy to understand why cognitive behavioral therapy works so well as a treatment. It is literally going right to the source of the problem, and that is always the best way to heal any illness.


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