Humans See Patterns, Even in Randomness – How Gambling Fools Your Brain

Bonus.com is an independent gambling news and information service. Bonus.com has partnerships with some of the top legal and licensed gambling companies in the US. When you claim a bonus offer or promotion through a link on this site, Bonus.com may receive referral compensation from the gambling company. Although the relationships we have with gambling companies may influence the order in which we place companies on the site, all reviews, recommendations, and opinions are wholly our own. They are the recommendations from our authors and contributors who are avid casino players themselves.

Bonus.com is licensed and regulated to operate in AZ, CO, CT, IL, IN, KS, LA, MI, NJ, NY, PA, TN, and VA.

All casino games are built on randomness, even those that also have an element of strategy. For conventional table games, the randomness usually comes from a deck of cards, dice, or a spinning wheel. Digital games use an electronic random number generator (RNG).

You probably have an intuitive notion of what randomness means. But can you define it without referring to specific examples, like dice or cards?

Mathematicians tend to define randomness by what it isn’t. Here’s a simple version of that:

Something is ‘random’ if it lacks any predictable pattern.

That’s an extremely important definition when it comes to gambling. The results of any casino game do not follow a pattern anyone can predict.

Naturally, that’s the way the casinos like it. If people could predict the outcome of games, they could easily beat the house, and the casino would go out of business.

The trouble is that humans—and other intelligent animals—are very bad at recognizing randomness. The reason for that is evolution.

The Evolutionary Origins of Superstition

True randomness is pretty rare in nature, and where it exists, it rarely matters to survival—for instance, the distribution of different-colored grains in a handful of sand.

The things that do matter, like the weather, aren’t entirely random. There’s usually a pattern hiding in the chaos, and our brains evolved to try to pick those patterns out.

One consequence of that is that true randomness plays tricks on us. All people, no matter how smart, have a tendency to hallucinate patterns when faced with randomness. Our brains will try to find the pattern in events we experience and use that to predict the future. But when the events are actually random, those predictions will lead us astray.

A related phenomenon is pareidolia. This is when our ability to pick up visual or auditory patterns leads us to see or hear them in places where they don’t exist. Most famously, this is why we see faces in everything: trees, clouds, wallpaper, etc.

None of this is exclusive to humans. Many insects exploit pareidolia with “eye spots” to frighten predators away. Meanwhile, famed animal psychologist B.F. Skinner showed that pigeons become “superstitious” if presented with a machine that periodically doles out food. Though the machine’s payouts didn’t depend on their behavior in any way, the pigeons would end up repeating whatever it was they were doing the last time the food appeared in the hopes that they could trigger the same result again.

Not Every Coincidence is a Pattern

Imagine you flip a coin three times, and it comes up Heads each time. That could be a pattern, indicating that the coin isn’t balanced fairly. However, it could also just be a coincidence—even a perfectly fair coin will do that 12.5% of the time. (See our lessons on probability for why.)

The difference is this:

  • If it’s truly a pattern, it will be predictable, i.e., the coin will also tend to flip Heads more often in the future.
  • If it’s just a coincidence, it doesn’t have any predictive power.

Unfortunately, it’s never possible to be entirely certain of whether you’re looking at a pattern or randomness. But in the case of casino games, you have the assurance of regulators that the games have been tested and mathematically proven to be random.

Even so, it’s a guarantee that you will see coincidences that look like patterns. The nature of randomness is such that patterns will seem to emerge, only to disappear again.

For instance, imagine an infinite sequence of letters: JWOPXPWANDDIELAVZ…

If they’re really random, the word “CAT” will show up there by chance at some point. So will “DOG, your name, the street you live on… In fact, every possible word spelled with English letters will appear eventually. It’s just that the longer the word, the longer you’ll have to wait—on average—for it to happen.

Similarly, a shuffled deck of cards will sometimes produce four Kings in a row. The roulette wheel will sometimes spit out 1, 2, 3, and 4 in order. And so on. Whatever sequence you’re looking for will happen eventually, just not at a predictable time.

The Absence of Coincidences is a Pattern

There’s an interesting flip side to this, which is that humans are as bad at faking randomness as they are at recognizing it.

If you ask someone to give you a random string of letters or numbers, they’ll instinctively try to avoid including anything that looks like a pattern.

But that absence of coincidences is actually a pattern itself. For instance, if the last three numbers were “123,” the human trying to be random will almost never pick 4. Conversely, a genuinely random system will produce a 4 there just as often as any other number.

In other words, by trying to avoid being predictable, people actually make themselves more predictable.

The most famous historical example of this is the German ENIGMA code in World War 2. The machines the Nazis were using to encrypt their communications had a crucial flaw: They would never encode a letter as itself.

That meant that if Allied code-breakers had a hunch about what words would appear in the message, they could narrow down its position by eliminating placements that would result in a letter being unchanged.

What that has to do with gambling is that we project our habits onto inanimate objects. If something is supposed to be random, we expect it to “try” to break any apparent pattern that starts to form, because that’s what we’d do. If it doesn’t, we start to question its randomness.

This is the Gambler’s Fallacy, perhaps the most common statistical misconception in gambling. If the roulette ball falls on Black several times in a row, we start to feel like it owes us a Red. But it doesn’t. The next spin will be just as random as those that came before.

Confirmation Bias

Once we think we’ve spotted a pattern that may or may not be there, a bad mental habit called “confirmation bias” kicks in and makes everything worse. Again, this is something that affects every human, even if they’re aware of it and try to correct for it. (See our lesson on Cognitive Biases for more info.)

Being right feels good and being wrong feels bad. So, everyone has a tendency to notice things that validate their beliefs more than things that refute them. It’s also easier to notice when things happen than when they don’t—when nothing happens, there’s nothing to remind you to think about it.

For instance, imagine someone who has coincidentally been in a couple of accidents involving red cars. Perhaps that leads them to speculate that people who pick red cars tend to be worse drivers.

Once the person holds that belief, they’re much more likely to notice mistakes made by red car drivers because they’re paying more attention to them. Meanwhile, they’re not going to notice when those cars are following the rules, because safe driving is inherently unremarkable.

Over time, every instance of bad driving by someone in a red car will reinforce the theory, while evidence to the contrary gets ignored.

Magical Thinking: A Risk Factor for Gamblers

By now, you can probably see how this becomes a problem when it comes to gambling.

Confronted with the random outcomes of a casino game, everyone’s natural reflex is to think they’ve spotted patterns. Perhaps they believe that three Black numbers at roulette are always followed by a Red, or that jingling coins in their hand can make a slot machine more likely to hit.

Once such a belief takes root, confirmation bias kicks in. Even in the face of times when the prediction doesn’t come true, the player will latch on to the times it does, in order to hold on to their belief.

To some extent, this kind of “magical thinking” is part of the fun. Just like sports fans like to pretend they can will their team to victory, watching the roulette ball spin is more engaging if you let yourself believe—in the moment—that you can predict where it’s going to fall.

Yet it’s easy to go too far. If someone truly believes they can control or predict the outcomes of a casino game, they may convince themselves that they can beat it. That, in turn, is a major risk factor for problem gambling.

It bears repeating, then: Randomness—by definition—is the absence of any predictable pattern, and casino games are provably random.

Your brain will try to convince you otherwise. That’s because it has evolved to look for patterns and try to predict the future. It’s okay to indulge your superstitions for entertainment purposes. However, you mustn’t let your mind play tricks on you to the point that you believe you can beat the games. If you do, you’ll have a much harder time walking away when it’s time to stop.

Casino School: The Psychology of Gambling

This has been Psychology of Gambling Lesson 2 of our four-part Casino School series. Next up is Psychology of Gambling Lesson 3: Signs of a Gambling Problem.

About the Author

Alex Weldon

Alex Weldon

Alex Weldon is an online gambling industry analyst with nearly ten years of experience. He currently serves as Casino News Managing Editor for Bonus.com, part of the Catena Media Network. Other gambling news sites he has contributed to include PlayUSA and Online Poker Report, and his writing has been cited in The Atlantic.
Back To Top

Get connected with us on Social Media