The Psychology of Chance

We may be wired to believe in luck, but random chance is in charge.

Jack With Fingers

Randomness is all around us. We recognize it in the pattern of raindrops falling in a puddle or in a chance meeting with an old high school buddy while on vacation at Disney World.

Interesting, then, that when we’re in a casino, a place where randomness is all around us in the form of slot machines and many table games like roulette, craps, keno and mini-baccarat, many of us become convinced we are superheroes who can bend the laws of chance in our favour.

What’s even more interesting is that it’s not our fault we see patterns where none are possible. Our brains are wired to see them and give meaning to random chance. There’s actually a fancy word for this bias, apophenia. Apophenia is the human tendency to perceive meaningful patterns within random data. It’s easy to fall under its charms, because apophenia helps us make sense of the unknowable and offers us a comfortable feeling of control.

It’s also why, after meeting that old friend in Florida, we might find ourselves thinking: maybe bumping into him is the universe’s way of telling me I should quit my job and follow him into the colourful world of being a professional Disney mascot. But then we decide the reconnection is only a happy accident.

And while it may not satisfy our desire for cause and effect, that’s exactly what winning many casino games really is: a happy accident. Our “lucky” belt buckle, our favourite slot machine, our deep confidence in our supernatural ability to pull magic from the sky—none of these things can change this fact.

For many this makes playing casino games even more fun. Why? Because, safe in this knowledge, we can focus our attention on the exciting ambiance, the food and drink, the music and flashing lights, and having a good time with friends. We can still hope that Lady Luck graces us with her presence, but must remind ourselves she is fickle in her affections and impossible to fool.

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