Luke Clark on the Psychology of Gambling

17:54 Tuesday 12th July 2011
Drivetime BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

ANDY BURROWS: If you can’t get yourself a big payout, or have not got a massive pension pot, maybe you can try and win the Euromillions lottery. It’s up for grabs tonight, £166 million. I think it would mean, if you won it, you would become one of the top 500 most wealthy people in the UK, if you managed to bag all of the cash. Last Friday it was reported that there was a massive rush on tickets just before the deadline. Organisers are expecting the same again tonight. But why do we decide to enter, even when we know there’s next to no chance of winning? Let’s speak to Dr Luke Clark. He’s from the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge. He’s done a fair bit of work, looking at gambling and risk-taking. Hello to you Dr Luke.
LUKE CLARKE: Good evening Andy.
ANDY BURROWS: Will you be spending your two quid? I think it’s two quid, isn’t it, for Euromillions? Will you be popping out and buying a ticket?
LUKE CLARK: It is £2 a ticket. I don’t think I will be myself, but we do know that the National Lottery is the most popular form of gambling in the UK.
ANDY BURROWS: Right. Is this because you’re an expert in psychology?
LUKE CLARK: I study the psychology of gambling, yes. And the interesting thing about lotteries really, it’s a very small wager, just £2 for a ticket, but we know that of course this is a potentially life-changing event for people, if they were to win. Now the odds of winning are incredibly low, as you say, but people in general are not very good at thinking about the likelihood of very rare events. So in the same way that people tend to overestimate their chances of winning the Lottery, we also see that they overestimate their chances of dying in very unusual ways, like in a plane crash, or in a tornado. Now one other very relevant feature with the Lottery is that you’ve got that element of choice in picking your numbers. Now statistically, you’re just as likely to win with random numbers, as if you’ve chosen your numbers. But choice gives you that opportunity to pick numbers that are personal to you, or lucky numbers. And gamblers are very attracted to that aspect of control.
ANDY BURROWS: Right. It’s interesting you should point out the fact that yes, fundamentally, when it comes down to it, there is more chance of being hit by a bus tonight than winning the Euromillions lottery, isn’t there, but we’ll plough on regardless. As you say, we’ll kind of ignore that. We’ll focus on the good stuff. So yes, when you’re talking about risk and gambling, people do have these lucky numbers, don’t they? We’ve all got them. And we kind of hang on to them, don’t we? Almost regardless of whether they are lucky or not, they mean something to us.
LUKE CLARK: Well we’ve been interested in a range of different areas in reasoning and irrational beliefs that gamblers experience while they play. And these beliefs actually take a variety of different forms. There’s believing in lucky numbers. There’s other superstitions and rituals, like carrying a lucky charm, or touching the slot-machine in a particular way. Gamblers tend to explain away their losses. They might blame the machine having “gone cold” on them.
ANDY BURROWS: Blame the machine. That’s right.
LUKE CLARK: They’re very interested in detecting patterns in sequences of gambles. So many gamblers believe that after a long run of losses, they must be somehow due or somehow owed a significant win.
ANDY BURROWS: A lucky streak.
LUKE CLARK: Yes. That’s called the Gamblers Fallacy, it’s so common. And it’s something that lottery players are very susceptible to. If you feel that you haven’t won for the last 15 weeks, you must be somehow owed a win. But that’s not how the games work.
ANDY BURROWS: Right. Couple of things though, isn’t it just fun at times?
LUKE CLARK: Well it is a very popular form of entertainment. We know that 70% of the British population gamble at least occasionally. But then there’s also this other side to it, that in some individuals, it spirals out of control. And we’re understanding now that problem gambling in many ways can be seen as a form of addiction. And we actually work with the National Problem Gambling Clinic, which is the first NHS clinic for gambling problems in the country, which is based in Central London.
ANDY BURROWS: And are there characteristics that would make some people more susceptible than others, do you think?
LUKE CLARK: I think we can see a number of risk factors for problem gambling. Some of those go right back to genetics. Some of those are about the family environment. If your parent had a gambling problem, that is a risk factor as well. Certainly when we measure these areas in reasoning, these irrational beliefs, we can see that the rates of those beliefs are much higher in problem gamblers receiving treatment, compared to the general population. Although what’s interesting is that we can also see moderate levels of those beliefs in the healthy population as well.
ANDY BURROWS: You’ve taken all the fun out of it. Do you ever have a gamble? On anything? Horses, dogs, two spiders going up the wall?
LUKE CLARK: I can see the appeal with various forms. The Lottery mystifies me a little bit, I must say. But I can see the thrill and the excitement in some forms.
ANDY BURROWS: Not in the quick game of heads or tails?
LUKE CLARK: Well the difference between skill and chance is one of the things here.
ANDY BURROWS: Come on Dr Luke. Break the habit of a lifetime. Heads or tails? Quick. Here we go. (FLIPS A COIN)
ANDY BURROWS: It’s tails! (LAUGHTER) Which is probably why you do what you do. And I probably fritter my money away terribly. Thank you very much. That was great stuff. Dr Luke Clark from the Department of Psychology at the University of Cambridge.