Own worst enemy

Don’t sabotage yourself in the casino

Success, like a brilliant diamond, has many facets. You can look at it from different angles. Each one shows you a different aspect of success. Winners are seldom one-dimensional. Whether it’s boxing, baseball or basketball, the champions always talk about the physical game and the mental game. It’s not enough to be physically strong – you have to be mentally tough and flexible to beat and be the best. Believe it or not, but the same goes for gambling. In gambling halls or online casinos, you have to know how to win – the tricks and techniques that separate the pro from the rookie – but you also have to know how not to lose. And if you want to know how not to lose, you need to pay attention to science – because science shows that the gambler’s biggest enemy is – the flaws in the human mind itself. Know your enemy – and beware the Gambler’s Fallacy.

Winning sequence

You’re relaxing in the casino and hear people getting excited at the roulette table. Somebody tells you that that wheel has spun black 20 times in a row. As you watch, the next spin lands on black – as do the next three spins. That’s 24 spins on black. Where would you place your bet on spin 25? Maybe you think the next spin is bound to be black. Maybe you think the odds of landing on black again are practically zero, so you bet on red. Well, if you bet on black, then on 18 August 1913 at Le Grande Casino in Monte Carlo, you’d have won (the wheel eventually spun black 26 times). If you bet on red, then you, like the many gamblers who lost millions betting on red that night, would have fallen for the Gambler’s Fallacy. Thanks to science, we now know the specific part of the brain where this problem is located. Maybe science can help us solve the problem!

Completely random

The fact is that, discounting any possible bias in the wheel itself, the outcome of a roulette spin is completely random. Say it aloud: “There is no relation between the spin that just happened and the spin I am betting on now.” If the ball has just landed on red, the probability of the ball landing on red again is not affected.

Every spin has a random outcome

In European roulette, the chances of spinning black – or red – 26 times are 18/37, or 1 in 136,823,184. The problem is that our brains are programmed to operate in a world that is not completely random. We have evolved to think in terms of cause and effect. This is actually a good thing. If you stick your hand in a flame, it will burn every time – it’s not a random effect! But in the casino, we have trouble accepting that things that happen in a sequence are completely independent of each other.

This is the essence of the Gambler’s Fallacy: we have trouble ignoring what just happened when we are figuring out the probability of what will happen next. Our perceptions go awry. It’s like a form of magical thinking or superstition.

Neural circuits

Now neuroscientists have started figuring out exactly how our perceptions go out of whack.

It’s all connected with a part of the brain called the insular cortex or insular. Research suggests that in mammals, especially apes, human beings, elephants, and some whales and dolphins, the insula helps these species with the ability to work together to achieve collective goals.

The thing is, to cooperate and collaborate for a future reward, we have to control our emotions in the present.  Gambling, though, is not a team sport. It’s an exciting activity that stimulates the nervous system and dopamine that rewards you with an emotional high when you (think you) are winning. The insula is also responsible for craving sensations experienced by people who go cold turkey on nicotine.  Damage to the insula short-circuits this mechanism. Patients with a damaged insula do not suffer from false beliefs like the Gambler’s Fallacy.

It would be a terrible idea to deliberately damage a part of one’s brain just to overcome Gambler’s Fallacy (or quit smoking). Fortunately, scientists think that therapies directed at modulating the insula could be effective.  Let’s hope they’ll be on the market soon!