God-Shaped Hole

In the 2016 Australian Census, 60% of the population reported themselves as following a religious faith.

This is unsurprising. According to cognitive scientists, we have a teleological bias, a hard-to-shift belief that things have a purpose, an end, and that things happen for a reason. This is our so-called god-shaped hole.

This bias likely gave us an evolutionary advantage. If you believe there is a point to life, you are more likely to act in a way that ensures the survival of your genes. If you don’t, then you end up sitting in a cave, dressed in black, listening to The Cure, waiting for the only certainty – death – to end your meaningless life.

However, in the modern world, this everything-happens-for-a-reason thinking can lead us to some unreliable conclusions. For example, Casler and Kelemen, in a 2007 experiment, found that when asked questions as to why certain things occurred, children tended to select a purpose-based answer. So, if asked, “Why does it get dark at night?”, children are likely to select, “So people can go to bed” as the correct answer.

This experiment seems to demonstrate that humans have a bias towards intentionality. Follow-up studies have demonstrated that this phenomenon is observable across numerous cultures, suggesting that it is innate to all humans, rather than being taught or socialised in certain societies.

Encouragingly, in this research and other work by Keleman, it has been found that teleological bias reduces with education, so adults are much more likely to be able to separate things that happen for a reason from things that just happen.

However, and most worryingly for punters, this bias increases again when we are in conditions of stress. In a 2009 study, Keleman and Rosset found that degree-level scientists, trained to only accept scientifically appropriate reasoning, would nonetheless revert to inappropriate teleological reasoning when under time-pressure to provide an answer.

We see this teleological bias in our everyday lives, and the role that stress plays in it.  We are all guilty, at times, of thinking that the world is against us. During a day when we have dropped a glass, lost our keys, missed the bus, and burnt our dinner, it is very easy to assume that the world is conspiring to punish us, that some deity is disciplining us for our wrongs. More rational explanations – we are tired, and so cognitively less sharp, and that when leading a busy life it is likely that things will go wrong from time-to-time – can sometimes escape us.

Thinking that the world is against us – whilst leading to temporary unhappiness – is likely harmless. However, when punting, sloppy thinking can be costly.

If we take the bad-day scenario above and add a losing bet or two to the narrative, we would be forgiven for thinking that our losses were part of the punishment too. Indeed, some psychoanalysts have suggested that problem gamblers have a kind of masochistic desire to chastise themselves for things they believe they have done wrong. This explanation is likely over-simplistic, and doesn’t apply to all problem gamblers, but it should prompt us to question ourselves. Have you ever placed a bet, even when you knew it was a bad bet?  Why?

The dangers of a teleological mindset apply to all punters, though, not just those for whom their gambling is a problem.

Punters should aim to find their success by adopting probabilistic thinking. This kind of mindset recognises that the future is not predetermined; that any event has a range of possible outcomes; that these outcomes have different likelihoods of occurring; and that these likelihoods can be quantified. Punters should try to best quantify the chances of each various outcome, compare these chances to the odds available, and bet accordingly.

Long-term losing punters are much more likely to assume that the future is already written. As a youngster in betting shops in the UK, I was enthralled to hear the old men, as they moved from one race to the next, each time asking each other, as if visiting a fortune-teller, “Who’s going to win this one, then?” Looking back, it’s clear that the assumption in that question is that the answer already existed. It meant those old men were in a binary, problem-solving mode. They needed their minds to be more relativistic and value-seeking. It explained why they would repeatedly back under-the-odds favourites, losing in the long-run, but buoyed enough by the odd win to keep coming back for more.

Like all cognitive biases, teleological thinking is hardwired, and so it’s something we must be constantly aware of and try to manage. Even the most rational of folk can revert to sloppy decision-making when put under pressure.

There is hope, though. In a 2013 study by the Bertelsmann Group, Australia was found to be one of the least religiously-driven countries in the world, with only 25% of Australians claiming that religion played a significant role in their decision making. So, if anyone can shift their punting mindsets from the teleological to the probabilistic, it’s Australians.

To do that, though, you must follow these three commandments:

  1. Thou shalt not believe that the outcomes of sporting events are predetermined.
  2. Thou shalt not place a bet unless thou have properly assessed its positive value.
  3. Thou shalt not bet when under time pressure.

Here endeth the lesson.


As a passionate sports’ fan and punter, Jack has written about sports and betting for over a decade, winning the Martin Wills Award for racing journalism in 2002 and writing Winning on Betfair for Dummies, first published in 2006 and now in its second edition, having sold over 35,000 copies in two languages.

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