Illusion of Control

Superstition and sport seem inseparable. Whether it is Steve Waugh carrying his grandfather’s red hanky in his pocket, Tony Lockett refusing to part with his lucky Adidas kitbag, or David Campese insisting that he was always the last player to run on to the pitch, sport is littered with examples of those who believe that inconsequential actions affect how they perform.

Psychologists explain superstition by suggesting that humans have a desire to control stressful and unpredictable events. We can reduce our anxiety by believing that an action is somehow reducing unpredictability, therefore putting us in control. It’s a phenomenon called the Illusion of Control.

The phenomenon is not isolated to sport. In all areas of life – from tribal civilisations believing that a human sacrifice will please the gods to lottery players believing that choosing numbers that match family members’ birthdays will increase their chances of winning – humans exhibit a belief that they can control the uncontrollable.

Much of the research into the Illusion of Control has taken place using gambling experiments, as they offer researchers opportunities to test whether participants believe they have control over probabilistically random events. Worrying, whenever gamblers are given a sense of agency in the outcome – pulling a handle of a slot machine, rolling the dice in craps, tossing a coin, releasing the ball in roulette – then their belief in how much they are influencing a totally random event increases exponentially.

Less easy to test in the laboratory, but nonetheless well-established anecdotally among the punting community, is the degree to which we believe we can affect outcomes in sports betting. If a punter successfully selects and backs a tennis player to win the Australian Open at odds of $11.00, it can often seem to the punter as if the victory was somehow connected with their bet; it proves their skill and wisdom.

Statistically, though, we know that betting markets are very efficient and that tennis players at odds of $11.00 go on to win tennis tournaments around 10% of the time. Punters should aim to identify small inefficiencies in the market – what we call “value” – where a player should be $9.00 instead of $11.00.

Dr Luke Clark, using MRI scanners at the Wolfson Brain Imaging Centre at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, in the United Kingdom, as well as further establishing this Illusion of Control, has shown that punters are particularly affected by near-misses.

To take the example above again, a punter who backs a tennis player who goes on to narrowly lose in the final will often interpret the near-miss as evidence of their increasing betting mastery, leading to them placing larger bets in future. The fact that a player at those relatively short odds is more likely to lose in the latter stages of a tennis tournament than in the early stages seems lost on them.

One study that is especially instructive for any punter is the 2003 work of Fenton-O’Creevy, who found that financial traders working in the City of London were just as liable to overestimate the control they exhibited over the uncontrollable. Most fascinating, though, was not the results of the group, but the fact that those individuals who believed they exhibited the least control over the experiment were also the individuals who were most profitable in their day jobs.

Other research shows that women are more likely to believe their actions are more impactful than they are, whereas those with depression are less likely. Interestingly, humans who have some control over events will often believe they have none. Most worryingly, those with pathological gambling problems are among the most likely to overvalue their own actions.

Being aware of these innate human propensities is beneficial. Sporting outcomes occur for a variety of reasons, and none of them are controllable – not legally, at least – by the average punter.

And when an outcome does occur, it doesn’t mean that it was always inevitable. A different decision by the participants may have changed the course of events.  When it comes to betting, then, looking for certainties is a way to guarantee losing money.

Instead, look for value. Gather reliable information and use it to assess the likelihood of something happening. Be analytical, detached and improve your methods in the long run.

Your approach, your attitude and your staking plan are all things you can control. The outcomes aren’t. Leave those to the red-hanky-waving sports-stars.

About The Author – Jack Houghton 

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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