Thinking errors in problem gambling – Part Two

How to Pass on Gambling Urges


In our previous blog we discussed some common errors in thinking that contribute to a gambling problem. Here are some more types of  ‘thinking errors’ that might look familiar to you if you are having problems with gambling, or know someone who is.


One ‘thinking error” is Selective Memory


 Selective Memory refers to the fact that often a person with a gambling problem will selectively recall or remember wins, especially large ones, and have difficulty recalling losses (Lord et al., 1975).  Such selective memory can often become a risk factor for relapse when for example, someone is struggling to pay bills they may remember a time they had a big win. At this time the person convinces themselves that if they gamble a big win could happen and provide them with the money to pay their bills. As these irrational thoughts happen the person often forgets all the times they have lost money instead of the one time they have won big.


Furthermore, gamblers tend to remember big wins more since they are so rare and exciting, and are more easily recalled than losses (Kahnemann and Tversky, 1982).


This gambler remembers the wins as he is caught up in the excitement of gambling:


I had a couple of big wins, and even though afterwards I had heaps and heaps of losses, all I could think about was replicating that feeling when I won. The rush was unbelievable and even though the money was quickly gone again I could remember the sounds, the lights…..everything. It seemed like it had to happen again, that I was due for another win’.

Another gambler talked about the bills and how he hoped a win could help:

I got caught up again in the cycle I was going so well not gambling until the bills came in at the end of the month. I did not have enough money to pay them off so I thought of the wins I have had and how a win could put me straight again. But I lost all the money.


Another “Thinking Error” is believing that luck is controllable– Many people who are having problems with gambling believe that luck can be manipulated in their favour, through superstitious behaviours or systems (Langer, 1983).  For example, taking a lucky charm into the pokies or wearing a lucky pair of socks. Some gamblers may have a favourite machine they believe is particularly lucky for them, in that it seems to pay out more or have specific features. For example, some gamblers choose gaming machines with lots of purple colours or icons that have special significance for them.

It is important to remember that these beliefs aren’t founded in reality – they are your mind playing tricks on you! Our minds are vulnerable to seeing patterns and making meaning out of almost anything. And the way our mind works is that we tend to remember things that confirm our existing beliefs – we call this the confirmation bias.

‘My mum had a machine that she would always use – even if it was being used she would wait for it to be free. She had a special relationship with it and really believed that it was lucky and that she could tell when it was going to pay out. Watching her, I couldn’t really see that it was any different from any other machine. But she insisted that it was her lucky machine and she had made lots of money from it.’

If you are having some problems with gambling, or have a loved one who is gambling more than they would like, it is likely that you can recognise some of these thinking styles.

A good way to challenge these thinking errors is to work with a counsellor to understand the reality behind them. It can take some time to change our thinking, especially if a gambling problem has been going on for a long time. But it is possible, and there is help available.

Call the Gambling Helpline on 1800 858 858 to speak to a trained gambling counsellor today.


KAHNEMANN, D., and TVERSKY, A. (1982, January). The psychology of preferences. Sci.Am. pp. 136-142.


LANGER, E. J. (1983). The Psychology of Control. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.


LORD, C. G., ROSS, L., and LEPPER, M. (1975). Perseverance in self perception and social perception. Biased attributional process in the debriefing paradigm. J. Pers. SOC. Psychol. 32: 880-892.


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