Betting on sports is a pastime that is almost as old as competitive sporting events themselves. Long before there were professional bookmakers, it is likely that those watching sports matches were engaging in private wagers.
If it is so enduring, it must be because there are psychological motivations behind the impulse to gamble on sports. In fact there are and they are powerful drivers that explain a great deal about the longstanding popularity of the activity.
Research into the effect that betting on sports has on the brain has found that it sparks neuropsychological responses that make people want to do more of it. For one thing, a run of successes when gambling on sports has been found to create a sense of confidence in the bettor and a belief that his or her knowledge and analysis is behind those wins.
That makes them more optimistic about the results of further bets than they should be for what is, in the end, often down to luck. Surprisingly, runs of bad results when betting on sports do not lead gamblers to lose confidence though.
Instead studies have found that they lead to a phenomenon known as ‘chasing’, where the gambler keeps placing bets in the belief that wins are just around the corner.
There are some more specific mental factors that drive the popularity of sports betting though, including the following:
Convenience and accessibility
People are essentially fairly lazy and the easier it is to indulge in a pastime the more likely that pastime is to retain its popularity. It is no coincidence that the rise in the number of people betting on sports has happened at a time when online betting sites and mobile apps have made it more accessible than ever before.
Most people have smartphones in 2023 and it takes minutes to download a betting app. Then bets can be placed from any location at any time, and in big cities there are always sporting events to wager on.
This can even enable people to get around the complex gambling legislation in countries like the US. With betting apps being available in legal states like NY, it’s hard not to bet on events – especially if you are a dedicated Giants or Knicks fan.
The rise of sports betting following the launch of online and mobile betting options was inevitable.
The happiness effect
Perhaps you have heard of a chemical called dopamine. It is the one that creates a feeling of happiness and wellbeing when it is released into the brain.
Activities that produce that dopamine hit are very hard to resist, because they make us feel better. Anything from sex to posting on social media can cause that dopamine hit and so does betting on sports.
Dopamine is released by highly stimulating activities, of which analysing and gambling on sporting events is definitely one. More precisely, it is when the gambler has a winning bet that they get that all-important flood of dopamine and feel like they are on top of the world.
We all want to do things that have the potential to make us feel that way and it is a potent motivator for sports and betting fans to keep combining the two.
The thrill of it all
Not all sports bets pay off. That means not every wager will produce the dopamine hit, but there are reasons why people keep doing it even when they lose.
The most important of these is that it is a thrill. Gambling on the outcome of an event is exciting, precisely because you do not know if your hunch will pay off or not.
The thrill aspect comes before the result has been established and people like that ‘buzz’ that they get from it. What it means is that there are clear psychological motivators behind sports betting both when those bets bring success and when they do not.
Winning bets see chemicals flood the brain that make the bettor feel good about themselves. Losing bets do not matter because the feeling of excitement and thrill that the gambler gets from wagering is powerful enough for them to want more.
In some ways then, betting on sports is very similar to being a sports fan. Fans endure defeats for their teams because the excitement of the action and the positive feelings that follow victories make the lows worthwhile.
It is not surprising that many sports gamblers are also fans of particular sports teams. However, the numbers taking part in gambling are going up, so it is not vital to be a fan.
People return to sports betting because it adds excitement to their lives and can make them feel happier and more knowledgeable about the subject.
Jordan Wayne, a psychology graduate from the University of Hertfordshire, has a keen interest in the fields of mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.
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