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Best of Alan Krigman

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Playing it Smart: Why rational people may be irrational gamblers

22 October 2007

Lots of people are rational lots of the time. They can and do weigh available information, distinguish fact from fancy and opinion, find flaws in specious logic, and infer whether serial phenomena are linked by cause and effect, correlated in other ways, or just coincidental. In a casino, the same solid citizens may instead be guided by intuition and emotion that flout what psychologists call the "critical thinking" they normally exhibit.

For example, despite every credible gambling expert in the world asserting that slot machines are random, a large fraction of players are sure they follow exploitable trends and patterns. Likewise at roulette, where the wheel and the ball are all there are to understand and nothing about either is out of plain sight. And illustrations can be cited from all the other games as well.

Some punters may, in fact, lack strong critical thinking skills. It's no surprise that such folks are convinced the bosses are harboring secrets they don't want anyone else to know, systems are waiting to be discovered that can guarantee consistent winning sessions, and the cards always run in streaks. But what of betting buffs who make clearheaded decisions in the workaday world, then cling to patent poppycock concerning games of chance?

This phenomenon is often blithely attributed to greed or at least overwhelming hope. It must be more than that, however, because the same syndrome characterizes people who look for evidence and evaluate alternatives carefully in almost everything they do but are positive the government dissected extraterrestrial aliens at Roswell NM or that Elvis is alive and well in Havana Cuba.

More, history is replete with seminal thinkers who selectively ignored their analytical proclivities. Take, for instance, Sir Isaac Newton. He's celebrated as the father of modern science for such achievements as discovering the laws of gravity and not only establishing the principles of force and motion but also inventing the mathematics (calculus) to describe them. Newton is somewhat less venerated for his work as an alchemist, in which he spent countless hours trying to "transmute" lead into gold.

D. Alan Bensley, author of "Critical Thinking in Psychology: A Unified Skills Approach," observed that Arthur Conan Doyle, a medical doctor as well as the creator of the eminently logical Sherlock Holmes, was a spiritualist. Conan Doyle didn't apply his "critical thinking skills in questioning whether sleight-of-hand and other tricks could account for what the mediums did, let alone in questioning the basic premise of contacting the dead."

Further, a report from the National Science Foundation (NSF) says that a third of all Americans put credence in astrology the idea that visual positions of stars and planets in the sky affect their lives. Questioning college graduates, the study found 2 to 3 percent classifying astrology as "very scientific" and 20 to 30 percent as "sort of scientific." NSF also cited polls showing half or more of the population believing in extrasensory perception and a fifth to a half accepting the veracity of haunted houses, ghosts, faith healing, communication with the dead, and near and dear to gamblers' hearts lucky numbers.

Bensley postulates that the penchant to reason coherently is more a function of personality traits than intelligence. Contributing factors include curiosity, open-mindedness, interest in new experiences, and conscientiousness. He adds, though, that while certain skills seem necessary for a person to think critically, the individual must also be inclined to do so. And, he notes, some people who have good critical thinking skills are motivated to use them under some circumstances and not in others.

In reviewing Bensley's book in The Wall Street Journal, Sharon Begley speculated that critical thinking is often "'context specific' ... trotted out in some situations but not in others" and surmised that readers could easily find examples of the latter. Hey, no problem; welcome to the casino. The poet, Sumner A Ingmark, knew this too when he so ingeniously inked:

Although in your life you've consistently tended,
To analyze all that mankind's comprehended,
Occasions arise when belief is suspended.

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.