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Best of Alan Krigman

Gaming Guru

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Does Thinking You Can Win Help You Win?

15 November 2004

Do gamblers' chances of success improve if they think they're going to be winners? The question, of course, doesn't imply that anybody should take seriously the obligatory statements blurted out by those mega-jackpot winners of the type, "I had a feeling I was gonna hit big today." Nor does it apply to situations in which solid citizens try to influence the cards, dice, or spinning reels by predicting or telekinetically "willing" them to yield a desired result. Rather, the issue is whether bettors who expect to win make decisions more conducive to success than those who believe it's all luck, or who come to the casino telling themselves, "I've only brought as much as I can afford to lose."

Sociologists call it the "Pygmalion" or sometimes the "expectation" effect. The general public may think of it as the "self-fulfilling prophecy" phenomenon. It has to do with people particularly, but animals as well, performing better when they're expected to do so. It's been pretty conclusively demonstrated and is widely accepted in education and management circles, among others. Does it apply to gambling?

The Pygmalion effect as generally documented involves a subject's performance based on someone else's expectations. As a classic example (for those who actually read Mary Shelley's book as opposed to watched a cartoon version of a Boris Karloff movie), the creature in Frankenstein anonymously befriended an impoverished family and helped it by leaving firewood at its humble cottage door. He eventually revealed himself to his beneficiaries. However, they were repulsed by his appearance and rejected him. When he found this family thinking of him as a menace, he believed he was. This caused him to seek revenge on his creator by hunting down and murdering Victor Frankenstein's friends and loved ones.

As a more factual and contemporary illustration, teachers at an elementary school were given names of children in their classes who supposedly had been identified as about to advance rapidly in educational achievement. At the end of the year, these students scored significantly higher on standardized tests than their classmates. In reality, the sets of children were picked at random and had no different prospects than one another.

A similar experiment was conducted with laboratory mice. Researchers were told that a first group of mice had been bred specifically to navigate mazes while a second was ordinary. The ostensibly special mice performed measurably better than their normal counterparts, despite actually having being selected randomly from the same population.

The influence of a person's own expectations has also been extensively studied. The work has lead to the conclusion that even a false definition of a situation can evoke behavior conducive to making the original unfounded conception come true.

This has many implications for gambling. For instance, it suggests that players who expect to win may recognize that their objective is to generate a reasonable profit then find something else to do, not to survive at a machine or a table long enough to merit a free pass to the all-you-can-eat buffet. Further, such individuals are likely to accept the normal downswings of a game and continue rationally when they occur without getting frustrated and making desperate bets, or madly switching from tried and true to new and unfamiliar tactics. Such folks, likewise, are apt to be prudent about bankroll fluctuations. This may mean ending a game after pulling themselves out of a hole, rather than concluding they're on a hot streak and money is about to start pouring in. Or, quitting with a profit when a run peters out and earlier earnings begin to dwindle.

And, although optimism doesn't always help, pessimism almost invariably hurts. For, as that prominent poet of positive posturing, Sumner A Ingmark, pensively professed:

Gamblers who start with a winning perspective,
Oft utilize strategies proven effective.
Those who believe it'll end in disaster,
May act in a manner that brings doom on faster.

Alan Krigman

Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.
Alan Krigman
Alan Krigman was a weekly syndicated newspaper gaming columnist and Editor & Publisher of Winning Ways, a monthly newsletter for casino aficionados. His columns focused on gambling probability and statistics. He passed away in October, 2013.