How to Avoid Common Cognitive Biases When Playing Casino Games

min read
BetMGM Sep 16, 2021, 8:01 AM

Have you ever wondered what makes gambling so much fun? Think about the one thing that all gambling games have in common: the random factor – the hand of chance. Whether you’re playing Yahtzee with friends or an online casino poker tournament, gambling is all about the thrill of beating the odds. Not knowing what the outcome is going to be and betting on it anyway is the essence of this pastime.

The trouble comes when you start thinking there’s some way to force or outwit the hand of chance. This typically leads to poor gambling decisions. The fact is that it’s totally irrational to look for patterns in a series of random outcomes. All the best online casino games, from online slots to casino table games, have purely random outcomes, thanks to the random number generator (RNG) software that governs play. That’s what makes them fair, after all. But try telling your brain that. The human mind is capable of fooling itself about practically anything, thanks to a phenomenon called “cognitive bias.” 

In this blog, we look at the most common types of cognitive bias that gamblers should look out for – and explain how you can outwit them.

1. Stuck in the past – Recency bias

Cognitive bias might sound complicated, but it’s not. It’s simply the phenomenon of seeing the world the way you want it to be, rather than the way it is. In gambling, that means entertaining beliefs about your chances of winning and losing. Let’s start with the most common one – recency bias.

This phenomenon is basically the belief that, because something happened in the past, it’s more likely to happen in the future. If you land a lot of winning combinations playing online slots, that winning streak is bound to continue, right? Not exactly. That’s recency bias messing with your head. “But if the ball has landed on red 10 times in a row, surely it’ll happen again?” Wrong again. Recency bias wants you to forget that games of chance are, you guessed it, random.

This is the most important lesson to absorb. Random means random. Let’s say you have a coin-flipping contest with a friend. There’s a 50% chance it lands heads and a 50% chance it lands tails (provided it’s not a trick coin.) Your friend flips heads nine times in a row. Would you bet on heads for the 10th flip, because heads are now “hot”? Or would you bet that tails is more likely to come up? The fact is that neither outcome is more likely. The odds are still 50% either way – for every single flip of the coin.

It’s also possible that the coin lands on heads every single time for a thousand flips. Randomness can be weird that way.

2. Confounding expectations – The gambler’s fallacy

Close-up detail of a vintage wooden roulette wheel with the ball on 13.

Recency bias has a flip side – it’s called the “gambler’s fallacy,” also known as the “Monte Carlo fallacy.” It’s a mental trap which convinces us that, because something happened frequently before, something different is likely to happen in the future. A famous story from gambling history illustrates this point.

In 1913, there was a lot of excitement at a particular roulette table in a casino in Monte Carlo. The ball had landed on black for the past 10 spins of the wheel. The gamblers thought that a red was surely due, so they started betting against black, but the ball kept dropping on black. The more this happened, the more the assembled gamblers were convinced that red was bound to come up on the very next spin, so they kept betting… and losing.

The streak only came to an end after the ball landed on black 26 times in a row! The casino really cashed in that night.

So the next time you play casino table games, be sure to be on your guard against the gambler’s fallacy. If you like to play casino games in a live casino online, use special features such as hot numbers wisely and with caution.

3. Escape the trap – Confirmation bias

Confirmation bias – when one focuses on information that only confirms existing preconceptions – isn’t specific to gamblers, in fact it affects almost everyone to some degree. We all know someone who doesn’t listen to anything that doesn’t agree with what they already believe, right? It’s just as well to know that, sometimes, that person might be you.

Rookie gamblers in particular are at risk of running into confirmation bias when they begin to play casino games for the first time. A typical example is a beginner poker player who has a couple of great rounds. Confirmation bias will have that player believe it’s possible to keep winning by doing the same thing. This can lead to terrible betting decisions, especially if more experienced players spot what’s happening and take advantage.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to fall into the trap of confirmation bias. The only way to avoid it, frankly, is through experience. You need to play a lot of casino table games to understand how things really work. This is where you could say online slot players have the advantage: There’s no element of skill when you play slots online, just pure entertainment.

4. The power of the small – Ratio bias

One of the weirder phenomenons out there is what we call ratio bias. For some reason, our brains are more confident working with big samples than with small samples. The best way to understand this is with an experiment. Try it with your friends.

Get a jar and put 100 marbles in it, with 16 all one color, say for example, black. Then mix them up. What are the odds of drawing one black marble out? You divide the number of black marbles by the total number of marbles. So, divide 16 by 100 and you get 16%.

Now get another jar with 10 marbles, two black. Here, there’s a 2/10 = 20% chance of drawing a black marble. The weird thing is that in most cases, people would rather draw from the big jar than the small jar, even though the odds of drawing a black marble from it are worse.

Another way of looking at ratio bias is to think of it as preferring to bet on a game that seems to offer better odds or more chances to win than another game. Compare a slot with 50 paylines like Tiki Reward with a simpler slot like Captain’s Treasure, which only has 9. You might think the slot with more ways to win has better odds, but that may not necessarily be the case, especially if the return to player is markedly different for each game. But of course, many players find that having more ways to win is more entertaining and so will happily overlook a spot of ratio bias in favour of just having more fun. 

How to beat cognitive bias

Close-up portrait of a woman holding a smartphone and celebrating a win.

You might think that you can do away with cognitive bias through being self-aware or disciplined, but the fact of the matter is that you can never beat it completely. The good news is that you can control the phenomenon.

The best way to reduce the amount of bias in your gambling decisions is to take the time to understand what the odds of the game really are. Here’s a simple formula for calculating odds for one of the most common even-money bets in American roulette. Take the number of ways you can get a black or red result, and divide by the number of total possible results. That’s 38 numbers – 18 red, 18 black, and two green (the “0” and “00” pockets on the wheel.) The probability of the ball landing on either red, or black, is 18 divided by 38, which makes 47.37%, so the house edge is 2.63% – which is the difference between the real and the effective odds, and is how the casino takes its cut. Players will get these exact same odds for every single spin of the wheel. Remember the gambler’s fallacy! The past 10 spins will make absolutely no difference to the outcome of the next spin.

That formula is less helpful when it comes to card-based games, where there is already a lot of strain on your brain. Mercifully, there are ready-made strategies available that can help. If you follow blackjack basic strategy, for instance, you can reduce the house edge to close to 1%. That’s probably the best odds of all casino table games. The point is, you have to stick with the strategy. Try to stay detached and alert to avoid getting sucked into a cognitive trap.

Play casino games at an online casino you can trust

Are you ready to beat cognitive bias and put your strategy to the test? It’s great to know that when you take part in casino games at BetMGM, you’re getting a fair deal. That’s because the games on our casino games app (and on our site) use sophisticated algorithms called RNGs (random number generators.) These ensure that the outcomes of our casino table games and online slots are actually random. Our games are also audited for safety and fairness by eCOGRA. The same applies to our live casino online – you’ll see real dealers and croupiers, real playing cards, real roulette wheels, and real fair results. 

Sign up with BetMGM to experience the best online casino games in a safe and fun environment.

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Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.

Our BetMGM editors and authors are sports experts with a wealth of knowledge of the sports industry at all levels. Their coverage includes sports news, previews and predictions, fun facts, and betting.