You Are Betting Wrong

I hate inflammatory clickbaity titles that brazenly claim you’re doing something wrong, but it’s now been a year of ReluctantGambler so I thought I’d allow myself one. Besides, you almost certainly are betting wrong.

There are several reasons why – a few of which I’ve covered before. These are the main three:

You’re betting to win money

Most academic surveys into gambling motivation find that people are doing it primarily to win money. It’s unsurprising, but it’s also stupid. You will not improve your financial situation by playing an openly rigged game.

You’re betting with your heart and not your head

Your brain is lazy and it doesn’t want to do calculations. In some forms of gambling that doesn’t matter because it is a completely skill-less pursuit (e.g. lottery, slots, roulette, bingo). But any time there is any degree of player control, you have the potential to make a bad decision. And you probably will because analysis is hard.

You’re betting with a scumbag bookie

This one is hard to avoid, because most of your options have the moral fibre of Machiavelli and empathy of a pre-spooking Ebeneezer Scrooge.

BetVictor were recently fined £2M for multiple basic failures, Ladbrokes rinsed the government furlough scheme even though their profits were unaffected, as did BetFred, who were also court-ordered to pay a £1M+ jackpot they welched on. PaddyPower have a record of encouraging underage gamblers and SkyBet are apparently on a mission to exploit and destroy every vulnerable gambler on their books.

Those are all examples of supposedly good and responsible, licensed UK operators. It’s hard to know how the ‘dreaded’ blackmarket could be much worse.

For the last couple of years I’ve been betting with Bet365, and while their conduct isn’t spotless, at least the owner pays loads of taxes, invests in their community and does a bit for charity. Importantly, I’ve never felt pressured to gamble more or play any of their riskier products.

But it was while enjoying their recently implemented Bet Boost offers that I realised there is another, subtler, way to bet wrong.

Don’t Bet on Lots of Stuff at Once

The human brain is incredible, but it has limitations. This touches on a broad and amorphous area of psychology called the working memory. It is essentially the stuff that you can sense (see, hear, smell, etc.) and mentally track at any given time.

Probably the most famous research in this area established the Rule of 7. On average, a person can remember about seven things (give or take a couple) before they start to make mistakes. That’s the reason that it’s hard to remember a whole mobile phone number in one go (unless you break it into memorable little chunks).

The limited capacity of the working memory is also why you can’t follow two conversations at once. You can certainly hear all the sounds, but there isn’t enough cognitive bandwidth to process everything. You can switch your attention between multiple conversations and get the gist of them (a pretty amazing skill in itself), but you can’t take in both simultaneously.

You also can’t daydream or let your mind wander when listening to a single conversation. The brain isn’t able to go on its own little journey while also following an external stream of thought. We tune out because we have to ration our limited processing power.

Taking it a step further, researchers have shown that our concentration is badly affected by having a conversation while driving. While chatting your field of vision narrows significantly, because the brain can’t expend it’s energy on peripheral vision whilst there are audio demands to deal with. The result is that your hazard perception drops to the equivalent of having had two pints before setting off. That’s particularly dangerous if you already had two pints before setting off.

Finally, a piece of research from one of my psychology professors looked at the performance of the agents working on airport security scanners. He found that people were generally very good when looking for a single specific threat, like a gun. But as soon as the agent had to examine images for more than one type of object (guns, bombs, drugs), the results dropped off a cliff.

That’s a highly relevant finding when looking at the fine art of Martin Handford. If you try to find Wally and the Wizard Whitebeard at the same time, then it’s going to take you longer and you’re also more likely to miss out on the hilarious antics in the rest of the scene.

Now let’s apply that high brow observation to betting. If you’ve got five different bets on in the same game, how are you supposed to follow them all properly? You can’t. The brain can’t handle it. If you can’t follow the bet, how are you supposed to gain enjoyment from it? Again, you can’t. By hedging your bets, you’re actually getting less overall entertainment.

That’s what I found when placing bet boosts across six simultaneous Premier League fixtures – I couldn’t remember them all (the Rule of 7 at work). I might’ve been getting some promotional value for money, but I had no opportunity to enjoy the wagers. Ultimately, that makes it a pointless exercise.

You could get around this issue by making the same bet in every game. If you have the home team to win 2-0 in every fixture then you really only have to remember one thing. But then you fall foul of the Bet-with-your-Head rule. If you’re only picking 2-0 for convenience, and not because you think it is a sound bet, then you’re betting on auto-pilot with your heart.

So my newest piece of betting advice is this: Place one bet at a time. Win or lose, that is the only way to maximise the fun.

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