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Surviving the game - an insight into the psychology of gambling


13 August 2013

Australians notoriously love to gamble, with 60 to 80 percent of the population engaging on some level every year. But how many of us understand what drives us to have a flutter at the races, buy a lottery ticket or spend a night at a casino?

On 14 August as part of National Science Week and as the Australasian Gaming Expo takes place in Sydney, Professor Alex Blaszczynski, from the University of Sydney's School of Psychology and Gambling Treatment Clinic will present the lecture Surviving the Game, Psychology of Gambling, Skill, Luck and Myth.

"Gambling dates back to Roman chariot wheels being used for roulette and betting on games of knuckles in Mesopotamia," said Professor Blaszczynski.

"Fast forward to the present and Australians spend around $19 billion each year on gambling, $12 billion of which is spent playing the pokies. Internet gambling is now a global industry worth US$35 billion with the recent sale of Tom Waterhouse's website reigniting strong competition among the Australian interests." Barrangaroo and its high roller casino is also on the horizon.

Gamblers can be motivated by fun, excitement and the desire to win combined, in many cases, with overconfidence that they will win. There are also underlying genetic or biological vulnerabilities that make some people unable to control their behaviour in addition to depression, stress, or need for emotional escape.

"There are currently class action cases in connection with dopamine treatments used for Parkinson's disease being shown to trigger excessive gambling. It suggests there is an underlying neurological vulnerability in reward centres of our brain that are associated with gambling."

The majority of gamblers act with a fundamental misunderstanding of statistical probabilities and randomness, and an unfounded faith that personal skill matters says Professor Blaszczynksi.

"For example, on gaming machines, a player return rate of 91 percent simply means that on average, each hit of the button costs 9 percent of the bet. You cannot win by continually spending. The law of large numbers and averages also means that, for example, a run of the same numbers in roulette is to be expected and not an anomaly or 'run of luck'."

Such misunderstandings help lead to problem gambling. "Up to 500,000 Australians are at serious risk of becoming, or already are, problem gamblers and the social cost to the Australian community is estimated to be at least $4.7 billion each year," said Professor Blaszczynski.

"Problem gamblers enter the downward spiral of self destruction by because of bad decisions, emotional problems or by being biologically destined to seek rewards."

"The way to emerge from the problem gambling cycle is to use cognitive therapy which focuses on correcting false beliefs about skill, luck and probabilities. Our program lasts eight weeks."

Problem gamblers can seek assistance from the University's Gambling Treatment Clinic or Gamblers' Help or similar services providing such evidence based counselling services.


Event details

What: Surviving the Game, Psychology of Gambling, Skill, Luck and Myth 

When: 5.45 to 6.45pm, Wednesday 14 August

Where: Eastern Ave Auditorium, Camperdown Campus 

Cost: Free

Contact: 9351 3021 and science.forum@sydney.edu.au 


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Media enquiries: Verity Leatherdale, 02 9351 4312, 0403 067 342, verity.leatherdale@sydney.edu.au