Matt Rawlings – Sports Betting in the UK: A Psychological View

James Smith* is 42 years old. He’s been happily married for over ten years, has three children of primary school age, and owns a four-bedroom detached house, for which he expects to complete mortgage payments within the next five years. His career, in the public sector, has progressed smoothly along an upward curve since graduating from University, and he has a wide circle of friends and a varied social life. He runs two cars, and takes holidays abroad at least once a year, with reasonably regular weekends away in the UK and Europe, too.

James is a popular, successful, and content family man; of that there is no doubt.

He is also a gambler. If that detail comes as a surprise, it shouldn’t. Gambling is a thriving form of entertainment, not only in the UK but worldwide, and its reach is extensive. The image of today’s gambler as the resident solitary male in the local betting shop was hugely outdated even a decade ago; super casinos provide a genuine evening out for couples, groups, and friends, while the explosion of internet sites mean that gambling is more readily accessible than ever.

"Cap #2" by Lee Machell
“Cap #2” by Lee Machell

A British Gambling Prevalence Survey four years ago determined the widespread popularity and reach of gambling in Britain. The survey revealed that 73% of people in the UK reported some gambling involvement within the previous 12 months and around 50% play games other than the National Lottery.

A research article published by Cambridge University looked at the psychology of gambling, and why what is essentially a ‘thriving’ form of entertainment for the majority becomes an addiction for the minority: what is classified as pathological gambling is a recognized psychiatric diagnosis present in around 1% of the UK population.

The author of the article, Dr. Luke Clark of the Department of Experimental Psychology, wrote: “At its heart, gambling is a rather paradoxical behavior because it is widely known that ‘the house always wins.’ Whether you are gambling on fruit machines, horse racing, blackjack, or roulette, the odds will have been meticulously arranged to ensure a steady profit for the casino or bookmaker. The only way to achieve this is for the gambler to make a steady loss. So why do gamblers, and particularly problem gamblers, continue to play when the overwhelming likelihood is that they will lose money?”

Dr. Clark asserts that some gambling games promote what is known as an ‘illusion of control.’

This is a belief that the gambler can use his or her skill to influence the outcome, when it’s actually governed by chance. For pathological gamblers, experiencing a near miss can stimulate them to place larger bets and play for longer, driven by the belief that they ‘came so close’ to winning originally. Near misses can be interpreted as evidence that the gambler is mastering the game.

There are clearly different ‘types’ of gamblers, who indulge their passion for different reasons. Professional gamblers stand apart from the rest as this group, as they have the expertise and the dedication to make judgement decisions that casual social and serious social gamblers do not. While professional gamblers are in it for financial earnings and to earn a living, social gamblers and a further group –- relief and escape gamblers -– revel in the element of risk, the feeling of escapism and glamour.

Back to James. He partakes in online sports betting, and the rise of prominent websites such as BetVernons means that he can fit his sideline interest around his career and family time. He gambles to increase his enjoyment of sporting matches and for social engagement – very often he’ll place bets or organize sports spread betting with friends.

“I gamble in a controlled manner, or at least I think I do,” said James, who bets solely on football matches. “I allow myself a strict monthly budget and will transfer that amount into my betting account. I never draw extra funds. What I win I keep in that account and use for further bets, and if I lose, that’s that until the next month when the account is credited with the next payment.”

“The experience just adds a little extra spice to matches which usually wouldn’t matter that much to me in terms of the outcome. Myself and my friends usually pick an accumulator of matches over a weekend, and those games might include games in La Liga and Series A as well as the Premier League. We’ve all got some longer term bets in play; Champions League finalists, European Golden Boot, that kind of thing. For us, it’s a bit of fun, nothing too heavy. To be honest, it’s bragging rights among a group of mates that are at stake more than money.”

Strategic sports betting is reportedly rapidly gaining in popularity. Unlike casino games, such gamblers typically believe that knowledge of sport gives them an advantage. But actually, it’s not necessarily accurate. In a study published in the journal Psychopathology in 2013, Professor Pinhas Dannon of Tel Aviv University found that neither betting experience nor sporting knowledge provides the gambler with the upper hand.

“Sports gamblers seem to believe themselves the cleverest of all gamblers,” writes Professor Dannon. “They think that with experience and knowledge, such as player’s statistics, manager’s habits, weather conditions, and stadium capacity, they can predict the outcome of a game better than the average person.”

For their study, the researchers focused on soccer betting and recruited three groups of participants, including 53 professional sports gamblers, 34 soccer fans who were knowledgeable about the sport but had never gambled, and 78 non-gamblers with no previous knowledge of soccer at all. The participants were asked to place bets on the final scores of 16 second round games in the UEFA Champions League. Those with knowledge of the sport fared no better than participants in the other two groups. Not only that, the two individuals with the best record –- correctly predicting the results of seven of the 16 games –- came from the group of non-gamblers with no prior knowledge of soccer.

For the vast majority of the UK population, gambling in all its forms is an enjoyable and valid method of entertainment. As the research sources shared in this article suggest, however, gambling is essentially betting on luck and even an in-depth, encyclopedic understanding of a particular field is no guarantee of success.

Matt Rawlings is a freelance writer interested in current affairs and the human mind. Trained in journalism, he enjoys looking into the popular trends of today and researching what makes them so appealing to the masses.

*James Smith is a pseudonym to respect the subject’s privacy.