What You Need to Know About Problem Gambling in Relation to Sports Betting

October 2, 2018

By Frank Grazioli, LMSW

Fall is here, and with it comes the opening and closing of professional and college sports seasons. The changing of the seasons also brings an opportunity to consider safety as it relates to betting on these and other sports.

 The Supreme Court’s decision in May to overturn an existing ban on sports betting will allow the more than 118 million Americans who gamble on sports to wager–legally. The broad popularity of daily fantasy sports and the availability of mobile technology for gaming or wagering translate into a constant ability to bet on sports. In a 2017 U.S. consumer survey, 45% of respondents explained their wagering behavior as a way to make sports more interesting. Other reasons given included a desire to compete with other sports fans, or to feel the excitement betting brings, and its sense of risk. Among college students and athletes, sports betting as a form of gambling is second in popularity only to poker.

About 2 or 3% of Americans meet the criteria for a gambling disorder, characterized by a loss of control over gambling behavior despite negative consequences such as significant financial loss, relationship ruptures, legal problems, and erosion of mental and physical health.

To explain the nature of a gambling addiction–or disorder–as it is clinically recognized, the team at the Columbia Gambling Disorders Clinic applies the principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), an evidence-based approach to treating addictive behaviors: Gambling disorder can arise from a person’s irrational or inaccurate beliefs about reality and about their chances of winning or about their skill in predicting an outcome. Such beliefs are called cognitive biases or distortions. Holding on to such beliefs typically perpetuates the financial and personal losses suffered by those with a gambling disorder.

Here are some of the most common cognitive biases of problem gamblers:

Availability bias. This belief leads a person to place too much importance on only what a person can imagine to be possible. For example, there might be a misguided belief that a particular player will execute a particular tactic because it has been seen to happen before. Such thinking fails to account for what we might not know—such as that player’s current state of mind or physical health—which could have a significant impact on the outcome of a game.

Gambler’s Fallacy or Randomness Bias. We can fail to recognize the randomness of events and consequently become vulnerable to assigning patterns to events to justify order and outcomes. If a team or bettor has lost several games (or bets) in a row, we may say that that team (or bettor) is due for a win. Conversely, if a team has won several games in a row (or the fan has won several bets), we might believe that the team or bettor is experiencing a winning streak, and the bettor feels compelled to wager on the same outcome. Ironically, when a perceived “streak” is broken by an opposing challenger, the loss can be rationalized and an “underdog bias” emerges and bettors begin, irrationally, to move bets toward teams not previously expected to perform as well.

Confirmation Bias. This is the tendency to seek out and believe only the information that supports an opinion we already have. In sports betting this can mean ignoring “bad news” about a particular player’s injury or about trouble within team management, and continuing to bet for a team whose performance is eroding.  

Optimism Bias. Gamblers can tend to be too optimistic or emotional about events they hope will happen, such as a home team win or a sentimental favorite player’s score, and can place unrealistically large bets on a particular outcome.

CBT helps the person with a gambling disorder to develop strategies and tactics to counter such cognitive biases. By incorporating more rational beliefs about reality, a problem gambler can begin to break the cycle of self-defeating behaviors. For those who gamble, here are some tips to betting on sports with a more realistic approach to odds and expectations:

  • Always look at data, such as team and player statistics, even if they don’t support your opinions or hopes.
  • Don’t overestimate or place too much significance on small sample sizes. A small series of wins or losses by a team is a perfect indicator of past performance, but not a predictor of future outcomes.
  • Be prepared to accept financial loss as the cost of the entertainment. In other words: Expect to lose.
  • Don’t use gambling as a way to cope with stress, loneliness, or depression.
  • Always remember: You don’t know what you don’t know.
  • Realize that when your bets distract you from your job, school, relationships, or other responsibilities, your relationship with gambling has become disordered. Get help.

If you think you or someone you care about may have a gambling problem or addiction, please take a moment to complete this brief assessment. Treatment is available. For more information, visit the Columbia Gambling Disorders Clinic website, call 646-774-8096, or e-mail gambler@nyspi.columbia.edu.


Frank Grazioli, LMSW is a therapist and research associate at the Columbia Gambling Disorders Clinic.