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Games of Chance: Effects on Perception and Decision-Making

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Playing games of chance long-term is said to significantly impact your cognition, as well as how you react to chance-or luck-related stimuli. 

However, the discussion is much more complex. To gain a thorough understanding of what games of chance involve and how gamblers are affected by their hobby or addiction, let’s discuss a series of research studies conducted in the past three decades: 

Cognitive distortions: examples and risk factors

While cognitive distortions in all types of gamblers require additional research, findings have shown that they’re more frequent in players with a family history of gambling

These distortions include active and passive illusory control, the false belief that they can reframe the game outcome (for instance, in the case of interpretive control) or predict it (such as probability control). 

Other examples are:

  • Magical thinking
  • Superstitious beliefs
  • The gambler’s fallacy
  • Selective memory

In several studies, cognitive distortions appeared to be more frequent when playing a game with a (potential) skill component rather than a non-skill game. 

But it hasn’t yet been established whether there are any differences between the sexes in this respect. 

Gambling-related distortions: the illusion of control  

A 2014 study on multiline slots led to conclusive results regarding how players perceive their control over the game. 

By allowing them to adjust both the bet amount per line and the number of wagered pay lines, it was shown that players might develop a false sense of control after a long-time engagement, which frequently leads to wrong assumptions that support excessive play. 

This may occur irrespective of the number of consecutive losses. 

The illusion of control often encountered among gamblers is also enhanced by the concepts of luck and chance. According to a 1998 study, these two differ as follows: 

  • Luck has an element of escaping negative out-turns or of achieving something relevant and/or challenging; 
  • Chance involves surprise and pleasant coincidences. 

It was discovered that chance-oriented individuals make decisions based on estimated/given odds which define the decision problem. In contrast, luck-oriented individuals decide according to personal luck self-attributions and overlook decision outcome probabilities. 

The illusion of control in pathological gamblers

A 2013 experiment showed that pathological gamblers might be more inclined to have the illusion of control in their day-to-day life than others. 

This supports the presumption that unhealthy cognitive mechanisms developed due to gambling could affect players in more aspects of their lives than just during gameplay. 

Generally, the illusion of control in both regular and experienced gamblers may come from their tendency to evaluate gambling sessions based on the events that support their pattern-finding ability. 

However, it is unclear how this may change or not in the case of pathological gamblers, as they seem to process control and confidence differently.  

What leads to pathological gambling?

In terms of potential risk factors for addiction, three cognitions that are strongly linked with this disorder can be mentioned: 

  • The excitement triggered by gambling;
  • The evasion from negative emotions by gambling;
  • The desire to win back your losses. 

Researchers from the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute in the UK analyzed the effects of near-miss events concluding that, despite not receiving monetary reinforcement, players are more motivated to gamble after experiencing near-misses. 

This is because such events anomalously trigger the neural reward circuitry that also responds to monetary wins.

While exposure to gambling cues also increases neural activity linked to cravings in pathological gamblers, it’s noteworthy that abstinence actually seems to decrease this response

Problem gambling comorbidities

Gambling disorder is often comorbid with other addiction and mental health disorders. Thus, a thorough evaluation is needed before deciding on a treatment plan.

Here are the most common comorbidities of problem gambling: 


Recognising obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can be essential in discovering the proper diagnosis. 

Thus, pathological gambling symptoms may be encountered along with the following:    

  • Repetitive behaviours/mental acts that the individual feels the urge to perform in order to abide by self-imposed rules obsessively; 
  • Such symptoms cannot be attributed to physiological causes, such as substance abuse;
  • Having recurrent thoughts or urges which are persistent. These often generate distress and/or anxiety.

Substance abuse: cannabis use disorder

Substance abuse disorders are widely spread among pathological gamblers and are easier to recognize than other disorders. 

Cannabis use disorder is one of the most common comorbidities in this category:

  • The individual has numerous attempts to either renounce or diminish cannabis use, but they are unsuccessful;
  • Cannabis use prevents the individual from accomplishing obligations in distinct aspects of their lives (for instance, at work);
  • Cannabis use is not stopped, irrespective of having a physical/psychological problem that may have been generated by it. 

Minimising the risk of developing pathological gambling

Gamblers rarely give up on their hobby after becoming aware of the risks. However, this category of players is still deserving of safety.  

To minimise the risk of being diagnosed with gambling disorder, follow the necessary steps for a secure gameplay experience: 

  1. Only access licensed online gambling platforms, and research the platform and its licensing status before playing. Look for lists of online casinos that have been tested by unbiased third parties for recommendations.
  2. Make sure the platform you choose has sufficient responsible gambling tools for situations in which you may wish to spend too much time betting; 
  3. Search for operators that provide efficient customer service. Ideally, you should have a 24/7 live chat available;
  4. Never register on platforms with no verified or mainstream payment methods. 
  5. Set limits on your gambling activity. This can include setting a budget for how much money you are willing to spend, as well as setting limits on the amount of time you spend gambling.
  6. Take breaks from gambling. It’s important to take breaks and engage in other activities besides gambling. This can help you maintain a healthy balance in your life.

Final thoughts

Much more research is required to grasp the pathological gambling phenomenon and its causes. 

Even so, the studies conducted so far help us understand that our cognitive processes can be altered due to long-term exposure to gambling.

This is why the thoughts and emotions of individuals engaged in such activities must be checked and discussed regularly to avoid the development of any distortions that may have irreversible consequences.

Zuella Montemayor did her degree in psychology at the University of Toronto. She is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.

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