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Pathological gamblers are more vulnerable to the illusion of control in a standard associative learning task

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Abstract

An illusion of control is said to occur when a person believes that he or she controls an outcome that is uncontrollable. Pathological gambling has often been related to an illusion of control, but the assessment of the illusion has generally used introspective methods in domain-specific (i.e., gambling) situations. The illusion of control of pathological gamblers, however, could be a more general problem, affecting other aspects of their daily life. Thus, we tested them using a standard associative learning task which is known to produce illusions of control in most people under certain conditions. The results showed that the illusion was significantly stronger in pathological gamblers than in a control undiagnosed sample. This suggests (1) that the experimental tasks used in basic associative learning research could be used to detect illusions of control in gamblers in a more indirect way, as compared to introspective and domain-specific questionnaires; and (2), that in addition to gambling-specific problems, pathological gamblers may have a higher-than-normal illusion of control in their daily life.
ORIGINAL RESEARCH ARTICLE
published: 17 June 2013
doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00306
Pathological gamblers are more vulnerable to the illusion
of control in a standard associative learning task
Cristina Orgaz
1
, Ana Estévez
2
and Helena Matute
2
*
1
Department of Psychology, Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia, Madrid, Spain
2
Department of Psychology, Universidad de Deusto, Bilbao, Spain
Edited by:
Rachel M. Msetfi, University of
Limerick, Ireland
Reviewed by:
Tom Beckers, KU Leuven, Belgium
Mark Haselgrove, The University of
Nottingham, UK
Irina Baetu, University of Adelaide,
Australia
*Correspondence:
Helena Matute, Departamento de
Fundamentos y Métodos de la,
Psicología, Universidad de Deusto,
Apartado 1, 48080 Bilbao, Spain
e-mail: matute@deusto.es
An illusion of control is said to occur when a person believes that he or she controls an
outcome that is uncontrollable. Pathological gambling has often been related to an illusion
of control, but the assessment of the illusion has generally used introspective methods in
domain-specific (i.e., gambling) situations. The illusion of control of pathological gamblers,
however, could be a more general problem, affecting other aspects of their daily life. Thus,
we tested them using a standard associative learning task which is known to produce
illusions of control in most people under certain conditions. The results showed that the
illusion was significantly stronger in pathological gamblers than in a c ontrol undiagnosed
sample. This suggests (1) that the experimental tasks used in basic associative learning
research could be used to detect illusions of control in gamblers in a more indirect way, as
compared to introspective and domain-specific questionnaires; and (2), that in addition to
gambling-specific problems, pathological gamblers may have a higher-than-normal illusion
of control in their daily life.
Keywords: gambling, illusion of control, associative learning, contingency learning, contingency judgments,
causal learning
The perception of control over important events in our lives
has been studied from many different perspectives in psychol-
ogy. It allows us to predict the consequences of our actions and
the actions of others, which adaptively can imply the difference
between surviving and perishing. Sometimes, however, perceived
control is not real. People often fail to distinguish those events
that are controllable from those that are not, which gives r ise to
the illusion of control (Langer, 1975). The illusion of control can
be defined as the tendency to believe that our behavior is the cause
of the occurrence of desired events that occur independently of
our own actions (Alloy and Abramson, 1979; Taylor and Brown,
1988; Matute, 1996).
The illusion of control is a universal phenomenon which has
been observed to occur in most people and under many differ-
ent conditions. Many laboratory experiments have shown that
college students develop the illusion that they are controlling
uncontrollable lights or tones or lottery tickets (e.g., Langer, 1975;
Alloy and Abramson, 1979; Wasserman et al., 1983; Matute, 1996;
Aeschleman et al., 2003; Msetfi et al., 2005). Illusions of con-
trol have also been reported in students trying to cure fictitious
patients in a medical decision task (Blanco et al., 2011), or in
Internetuserswhoaretryingtoobtainpointsinanotherwise
uncontrollablecomputergame(Matute et al., 2007). The illusion
of control is also well-known among athletes and sports players,
who often feel that a given ritual or lucky charm is necessary
for success (Bleak and Frederick, 1998), or even in sport spec-
tators, who tend to feel that supporting (or not) their favorite
team through their TV at home contributes to the happy (or
disastrous) score of the team (Pronin et al., 2006). Trading and
consumer behavior have also been shown t o be vulnerable to the
illusion of control (Fenton-O’Creevy et al., 2003; Kramer and
Block, 2011), as have companies and organizations themselves
(Durand, 2003).
Finding out which conditions modulate the development and
maintenance of the illusion of control is therefore important,
giventhatitaffectsalmostanyoneandalmostanydecisionor
aspect in our daily life. Thus, at the same time that there is an
extensive scientific literature which has highlighted the universal-
ity of this bias, there is also an important research agenda which
explores the degree to which the illusion of control is sensitive to
individual differences among humans.
The study of individual differences in the illusion of con-
trol has been concerned with gender (with women generally
showing stronger illusions of control than men; see Alloy and
Abramson, 1979; Wong, 1982; Vyse, 1997; Wolfradt, 1997; Dag,
1999), superstitious attitudes (Rudski, 2004), psychopathology
(e.g., Wolfradt, 1997; Dag, 1999); cooperative behavior (Morris
et al., 1998; Goldberg et al., 2005), or even sports (Laurendeau,
2006). It is also possible to come across studies about the illu-
sion of control in psychological disorders such as depression (with
depressed people generally being less vulnerable to the illusion
of control; see Alloy and Abramson, 1979; Vázquez, 1987; Blanco
et al., 2009, 2012), obsessive-compulsive disorder (Reuven-Magril
and Reuven, 2008) and physical health (Harris and Middelton,
1994).
Pathological gambling is one of several psychological disorders
with which the illusion of control has been most strongly asso-
ciated (Ladouceur et al., 1984; Wolfgang et al., 1984; Coventry
and Norman, 1998; Källmén et al., 2008; Lingyuan and Austin,
2008). It is a disorder of impulse control in which cognitive distor-
tions are assumed to play an important role (Myrseth et al., 2010).
According to some researchers (Sharpe, 2008; Lund, 2011)people
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Orgaz et al. Illusion of control in gamblers
with pathological gambling disorder bet because they hold wrong
or irrational beliefs about the game and their ability to influence
its outcome. Pathological gambling is closely related to the per-
ception of the player that, to some extent, he or she can control
the outcome of his or her bets (Goodie, 2005).
According to some, however, the lack of valid measures has
impeded the systematic investigation of cognitive biases in gam-
blers (MacKillop et al., 2006). Data suggestive of an illusion
of control in gamblers have often been obtained through talk-
aloud methods and self-reporting measures and almost always
in domain-specific (i.e., gambling) conditions (e.g ., Dickerson,
1993; Strickland et al., 2006). As is already well-known in the
literature, this type of data collection can be subject to a series
of social desirability biases, avoidance of cognitive dissonance,
or even investigator biases, particularly when the questions are
related to the variable under study (i.e., in this case, gambling).
Recent reviews have shown that the contribution of cognitive
distortions to the development and maintenance of pathologi-
cal gambling behavior is still in need of further scrutin y (Fortune
and Goodie, 2011). Furthermore, some researchers from the clin-
ical domain have argued, against the view of many others (e.g.,
Coventry and Norman, 1998; Källmén et al., 2008; Hudgens-
Haney et al., 2013), that the illusion of control has only a limited
influence in the maintenance of gambling behavior (Labrador
et al., 2002; Mañoso et al., 2004). A better understanding of gam-
blers’ subjective judgments of control seems therefore a necessary
step in clarifying the etiology and maintenance of pathological
gambling behavior (Matheson et al., 2009).
A question of particular interest is whether pathological gam-
blers actually suffer from a general distortion in their perception
of control or is, by contrast, a domain-specific problem what the y
suffer. If it wer e a generalized distortion, then they should show
a stronger than normal illusion of control in tasks and activities
which are unrelated to gambling. Therefore, it seems important to
rely on a more indirect methodology which is unrelated to gam-
bling and which can collect indicators of the illusion of control
that are not mediated by introspection. For all these reasons, we
propose that the study of pathological gamblers should benefit
from using the same assessment tec hniques that are typically used
in the study of contingency judgments and illusions of control
in general associative learning theory and research. Of particu-
lar interest, from our point of view, is that this methodology will
allow u s to test, not whether gamblers develop illusions of con-
trol during gambling, but, most importantly, whether they tend
to overestimate cause-effect relationships in other areas of their
life as well.
CONTINGENCY LEARNING AND THE ILLUSION OF CONTROL
The clinical and social psychology approach to the illusion of con-
trol has typically explained this illusion as a means to protect
self-esteem (e.g., Taylor and Brown, 1988; Alloy and Clements,
1992). However, these illusions have also been reported in many
cases in which participants are not personally involved and their
self-esteem is not at risk, as when participants ask somebody else
to roll a dice for them (e.g., Wohl and Enzle, 2009), when par-
ticipants are just spectators in a sports competition and believe
they influence their teams results (e.g., Pronin et al., 2006), or
when participa nts develop the illusion by just observing or being
told that someone took a (fake) medicine and reported feeling
better (Matute et al., 2011). Associative learning researchers have
explained the illusion of control as a special case of the illu-
sion of causality, a cognitive bias that takes place in most people
when associating causes and effects in null contingency situations
(Matute et al., 2011). In this framework, being personally involved
or trying to protect self-esteem is not critical, as the illusion is
thought to be the output of the way our cognitive system interacts
with the world and extracts contingency and causal information
from it (e.g., Matute, 1996; Msetfi et al., 2005, 2007; Allan et al.,
2008; Matute et al., 2011).
In order to infer that a causal relationship exists, the poten-
tial cause (the participants’ action, in the case of the illusion of
control) and the outcome should be contingent to each other. A
commonly used index of contingency is the pindex(Jenkins
and Wa rd, 1965; Allan and Jenkins, 1983). It is calculated as the
probability o f the outcome occurring when the potential cause
(i.e., the response, in the case of illusion of control) has been pre-
sented P(O|C), minus the probability of the outcome occurring
when the cause is absent, P(O|¬ C). That is, p = P(O|C)
P(O|¬ C).
A zero contingency relationship between our behavior and an
outcome would be that in which the outcome occurs with the
same probability regardless of whether we perform the response.
Thus, a value of p of 0 means that our behavior does not cause
the outcome. An illusion of control is said to occur in a zero
contingency situation whenever people report a subjective judg-
ment of contingency significantly higher than 0. This is a very
commonillusionofcausalitywhichhasbeenshowninmany
different experiments in the associative learning literature (e.g.,
Alloy and Abramson, 1979; Wa sserman et al., 1983; Matute, 1996;
Allan et al., 2005; Msetfi et al., 2005, 2007; Matute et al., 2007;
Hannah and Beneteau, 2009; Blanco et al., 2012). According to
associative theories, this illusion is a consequence of the asso-
ciative learning mec hanism constantly trying to associate causes
and effects. It sometimes overestimates the relationship between
potential causes and effects, particularly under certain conditions.
One of the variables that has been most clearly established to
affect the development of the illusion of causality is the prob-
ability of the outcome, for instance, the probability with which
spontaneous remissions of pain occur (e.g., Alloy and Abramson,
1979; Allan and Jenkins, 1983; Matute, 1995; Wasserman et al.,
1996; Buehner et al., 2003; Allan et al., 2005, 2008; Msetfi et al.,
2005, 2007; Musca et al., 2010). Another variable that is known to
affect this illusion is the probability of responding (or, more gen-
erally, the probability with which the potential cause occurs; e.g.,
Allan and Jenkins, 1983; Matute, 1996; Wasserman et al., 1996;
Perales et al., 2005; Hannah and Beneteau, 2009; Matute et al.,
2011; Vadillo et al., 2011). The higher these two probabilities, the
higher the probability that coincidences will occur between the
potential cause and the outcome, and thus, the higher the prob-
ability than an illusion of control will develop (see Blanco et al.,
2011, 2013; Hannah and Beneteau, 2009).
Therefore, we used a standard task that measures perc eived
contingency with respect to an actual null contingency in a fic-
titious medical scenario. The outcome wa s programmed to occur
Frontiers in Psychology | Personality Science and Individual Differences June 2013 | Volume 4 | Article 306 | 2
Orgaz et al. Illusion of control in gamblers
at high rate (i.e., high frequency of spontaneous recovery in fic-
titious patients), so that control participants would develop the
illusion, particularly if they responded frequently. This procedure
should be low on biases inherent to introspective and domain-
specific measures, but should nevertheless induce an illusion of
control in most participants. If pathological ga mblers suffer from
a stronger-than-normal distortion in their general perception of
contingency, their bias should manifest in this standard medical
judgments task as compared to the control group. If this were the
case, this would mean that the gamblers misperception of control
is not restricted t o their gambling activities, but could possibly be
generalizable to other aspects of their daily life.
METHODS
PARTICIPANTS AND APPARATUS
One hundred anonymous participants took part in this experi-
ment. The gambler group was recruited through FEJAR (Spanish
Federation of Rehabilitated Gamblers). It consisted of 49 partici-
pants (42 men and 7 women, mean age = 40.4, SD = 11.31) who
had been diagnosed of pathological gambling using the South
Oak Gambling Screen Questionnaire (i.e., SOGS, see Leiseur and
Blume, 1987, Spanish adaptation by Echeburua et a l., 1994).
They were currently in rehabilitation stage. Their voluntary and
anonymous participation was requested through FEJAR. The
experiment was available during 6 months at our online labora-
tory, http://www.labpsico.deusto.es,sothatparticipantsinboth
groups could access the experiment at their convenience.
The control group consisted of 51 anonymous Internet users
(27 men and 24 women, mean age = 37.04, SD = 10.54) who
happened to visit our online laboratory (because they were vis-
iting a web site or social network that linked our laboratory or
because they were searching the Internet for concepts related to
information published in our laboratory, or because of other
reasons) during the time the experiment was available, and vol-
untarily decided to participate. To increase participation and
following ethical standards for human research over the Internet
(Frankel and Siang, 1999), we never ask participants in our online
laboratory to provide additional personal or demographic data,
nor do we u se cookies or software to obta in information without
their consent.
Internet experiments could be in principle suspect to provid-
ing noisy data, but they have been shown to yield results that are
as reliable as those observed in the laboratory if certain caution-
ary measures are taken (e.g., Kraut et al., 2004; Germine et al.,
2012; Ryan et al., 2013). Most importantly for our present pur-
poses, illusion of control effects have already been replicated both
in the laboratory and through the Internet using associative learn-
ing procedures similar to the one we are using here (e.g., Matute
et al., 2007; Blanco et al., 2013).
PROCEDURE AND DESIGN
Participants performed a task known as the “Contingency
Judgments Task, which, under different variations and versions,
is frequently used in the study of associative learning (e.g., Allan
et al., 2005; Msetfi et al., 2005; Blanco et al., 2011). In our proce-
dure, participants were asked to imagine being a medical doctor
who was using an experimental medicine, Batatrim, which might
cure painful crises produced by a fictitious disease called Lindsay
Syndrome. They were also told that the effectiveness of Batatrim
had not been prov en yet and that this medicine produced some
secondary effects, so that they needed to use it with caution (this
instruction was given so that participants would not adminis-
ter Batatrim at every opportunity to their fictitious patients).
P articipants were exposed to the records of 100 fictitious patients
suffering from Lindsay’s crises, one patient per trial. In each trial,
the screen was divided in three horizontal panels. In the upper
panel, participants were informed that that patient was suffering a
crisis. In the second panel, participants could choose between giv-
ing or not giving Batatrim to this particular patient. Responses to
this question were given by clicking on one of two bottoms, “Yes”
or “No. The lower panel of each trial was presented immediately
after participants entered their response. It show ed whether the
fictitious patient overcame the crisis. It also showed a “click to
continue” bottom that participants could click a t their pace in
order to continue to the next trial.
After the 100 training trials, participants were asked to rate the
efficacy of Batatrim in healing the crises. For this purpose the fol-
lowing question was presented in the middle of the screen: to what
ext ent do you believe that Batatrim has been effective in healing
the crises of the patients you have seen?” This t est question was
answered in a scale ranging from 0 (labeled “Definitely not”) to
100 (labeled “Definitely”).
The outcome (healings) occurred with a probability of 0.80,
but following a pseudorandom order which was independent of
the participants’ behavior. As mentioned in the Introduction, the
reason we are using a high probability of the outcome is because
this has been shown to favor the development of the illusion
in most people in previous reports (Alloy and Abramson, 1979;
Allan and Jenkins, 1983; Matute, 1995; Hannah and Beneteau,
2009). Thus, even though it occurred very frequently, the out-
come was absolutely independent of the participants’ behavior,
which means that any subjective estimation of control that is
significantly greater than 0 can be considered an illusion of con-
trol. Most importantly, the critical question of this experiment is
whether the gambler group will show a stronger illusion than the
control group under this high-outcome procedure.
RESULTS
As could be expected from prev ious reports on the illusion of
control using a high probability of the outcome, both groups of
participants ov erestimated the contingency between their behav-
ior and the outcome. Student’s t-tests confirmed that in both
groups the judgments of contingency were significantly higher
than 0, t
(48)
= 24.42, p < 0.01 for the gamblers group, and
t
(50)
= 13.85, p < 0.01 for the control group. The critical result in
this experiment, however, is the stronger illusion of control that
wasobservedinthegamblersgroup(M = 70.61, SE = 2.89) as
compared to the control group (M = 57.20, SE = 4.12). A t-test
revealed that this difference was statistically significant, t
(98)
=
2.643, p = 0.010. These data indicate that pathological gamblers
perceived a stronger illusory relationship between their behavior
and the desired outcome in a medical diagnostic task commonly
used to assess associative learning and contingency judgments in
laboratory settings.
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Orgaz et al. Illusion of control in gamblers
In addition, and in line with previous reports (Matute,
1996; Blanco et al., 2009, 2011; Hannah and Beneteau, 2009),
the results of this experiment showed a significant correlation
between the probability with which participants administered the
medicine to their fictitious patients and their judgment of control,
Pearson’s r = 0.418, p < 0.01. That is, the higher the probabil-
ity of responding, the higher the illusion of control. Interestingly,
however, there were no significant differences in the probabil-
ity with which the gamblers group (M = 63.27, SE = 0.054)
and the control group (M = 59.69, SE = 0.048) administered
the medicine to their patients, t
(98)
= 0.492, p > 0.05. Thus, as
expected, participants’ judg ments of control were highly corre-
lated with their probability of responding, so that they developed
stronger illusions as responding increased. However, the higher
illusion observed in the gamblers group was not due to stronger
responding in this group. Thus, a genuine difference in the way
they process causal information seems to be responsible for the
stronger illusion shown by this group.
Before we finish this section some comment is in order in rela-
tion to the possible influence of demographic variables such as
age and gender on the observed results. First, no significant differ-
ences were observed between the two groups with respect to age,
t
(98)
= 1.373, p > 0.05, thus, the observed differences cannot be
attributed to this variable. However, and despite the experiment
being available online during 6 months, the gamblers group was
composed mainly of men. Thus, the effect of gender cannot be
properly analyzed. Nevertheless, the results of the present experi-
ment are exactly opposite to what should be expected if the effect
of group and gender had been confounded. Previous research had
shown that women are more vulnerable to the illusion of control
than men (Alloy and Abramson, 1979; Wong, 1982; Vyse, 1997;
Wolfradt, 1997; Dag, 1999). Thus, if anything, a group composed
mainly of men should have shown a weaker, rather than a stronger
illusion.
DISCUSSION
The present results show that in a standard medical judgmental
task in which the outcome occurs at a high rate and most peo-
ple develop an illusion of control, pathological gamblers show
an illusion that is even stronger than that of control partici-
pants. That is, in this experiment, the actual causal relationship
between the participants’ administering a medicine to the ficti-
tious patients and the healing of the patients was non-existe nt,
but even so, gambler participants perceived it as highly contin-
gent (compared to a control group without diagnosed pathology
who also developed the illusion but less intensely). The use of
this associative learning task, which also reflects a feasible situ-
ation in daily life (i.e., using medication to reduce pain or illness),
suggests that the illusion of control may be a generalized prob-
lem in gamblers’ daily life and is, therefore, not restricted to
theirgamblingbehavior.Thishasimplicationsforourunder-
standing of the way pathological gamblers process causal infor-
mation outside of the gambling domain, and may provide
hints for a more general assessment and treatment of their
problem.
As previously mentioned, the illusion of control is explained
from most associative learning theories as a misperception of
contingencies that takes place in most people under certain condi-
tions. There are some differences between different theories, and
this misperception could occur through several different mecha-
nisms. For instance, it could be due to people giving more weight
to cases that confirm that their behavior is followed by the desired
outcome and less weight to other information such as, for exam-
ple, those cases in which the result occurs when they do not act
(e.g., cases in which the health crises are also overcome even when
the patient is not giv en the medicine). Several associative the-
ories have contemplated a weighted p rule, in which people
would weight differently the different types of information that
can be encountered, with maximal weight given to those cases in
which both the potential cause and the outcome are present, and
minimum weight to cases in which neither one is present (e.g.,
Wasserman et al., 1996). A related but slightly different approach
has been taken by associative theories that emphasize the differ-
ential perception of contextual information or, in other words,
the way participants perceive what happens during the time in
which no cues or outcomes are being presented and therefore
they are just exposed to the experimental context (Msetfi et al.,
2005, 2007). There are also theories that propose that the locus
of the distortion does not reside at the perception (or encoding)
stage, but at the subsequent judgmental stage (e.g., Allan et al.,
2008). Yet, other theories have emphasized the role of the proba-
bility of responding (or, more generally, of the pot ential cause),
so that, for instance, participants have been shown to expose
themselves to more (adventitious) cause-effect coincidences when
they respond frequently to obtain the outcome (i.e., assuming the
outcome also occurs w ith high frequency, which is usually the
case in situations in which illusions occur; see e.g., Matute, 1996;
Hannah and Beneteau, 2009; Matute et al., 2011; Blanco et al.,
2012, 2013). In these cases the number of accidental coincidences
increases as the probability of the cause increases (e.g., as partici-
pants respond more), thereby the illusory perception of causality
becomes stronger as well. The locus of the illusion of contro l here
is therefore behavioral: the more participants respond, the greater
their illusion.
This latter view is the one we have favored in many previous
reports, and the basic finding that the probability of responding
influences the illusion has been replicated in many experiments
(e.g., Matute, 1996; Blanco et al., 2009, 2011, 2012; Hannah and
Beneteau, 2009). The general effect of the probability of respond-
ing has also been replicated in the present experiment, in which
the outcome was frequent and the results showed that the higher
the probability of responding, the higher the illusion of con-
trol. Importantly, however, the probability-of-response effect was
clearly not responsible for the stronger illusion of control devel-
oped by the gamblers group, as differences in response probability
were not observed between the two groups. Thus, even though the
present experiment was not designed to discriminate among the
different theories of the illusion of control, it seems clear that
the locus of the stronger illusion observed in the gamblers group
in this medical task resides, not at the behavioral level, but at the
perceptual or the judgmental stages.
The present results also suggest that the development of pro-
grams and strategies to help people be more accurate in their
general detection of contingencies could be a good complement
Frontiers in Psychology | Personality Science and Individual Differences June 2013 | Volume 4 | Article 306 | 4
Orgaz et al. Illusion of control in gamblers
to clinical therapies designed to eliminate gambling behav-
ior. Cognitive interventions for pathological gambling usually
focus on cognitive behavioral therapy (Gooding and Tar rier,
2009) and on identifying and restructuring cognitive distor-
tions (Ledgerwood and Petry, 2005; Fortune and Goodie, 2011).
Making use of strategies developed under the general associative
learning framework to reduce the likelihood of overestimation
of contingencies could probably be a helpful addition. Indeed,
proper training in recognizing the actual relationships between
actions and outcomes in different non-gambling situations could
possibly help patients learn to detect the lack of control in situa-
tions where there is no contingency between the events, at least
in non-gambling conditions (see e.g., Wasserman et al., 1983;
Matute, 1996; Msetfi et al., 2005, 2007; Hannah and Beneteau,
2009; Matute et al., 2011; Blanco et al., 2012).
As mentioned in the Introduction, many experiments have
shown that a high outcome probability favors the development
of the illusion of control. This outcome density effect was doc-
umented in the 1980’s and 1990’s (Alloy and Abramson, 1979;
Allan and Jenkins, 1983; Matute, 1995) and is still a topic of
high relevance in the experimental study of contingency learn-
ing (Buehner et al., 2003; Alla n et al., 2008, 2005). For this reason,
we used a high-outcome schedule. Control participants should
develop the illusion and in this way a potentially stronger illu-
sion could be observed in the gamblers group when confronting
this standardized procedure. Thus, it is important to note that the
present research does not speak to the issue of how the illusion
of control operates d uring the low outcome conditions which a re
common during gambling. As many authors have already stated,
other factors are critical in explaining the origin and maintenance
of gambling behavior, such as, for instance, variable schedules
of reinforcement (Ferster and Skinner, 1957)andthefactthat
gamblers often mention that their gambling behavior was rein-
forced during the early trials (Molde et al., 2009). Our research
is silent with respect to those factors and to gambling behav-
ior itself. What it shows is that gamblers are more vulnerable to
the illusion of control than control participants in other areas of
their life.
Our findings raise several questions about the role the illusion
of control plays in pathological gambling (Myrseth et al., 2010).
Itispossiblethatpeoplewhoaremorevulnerabletotheillusion
of control have a greater risk of falling into gambling behavior,
thoughitmightalsobethatitisgamblingbehaviorwhatincreases
vulnerability to the illusion of control. In this respect, the exper-
imental assessment of the illusion of control that we propose can
provide a richer and more complete assessment in different sit-
uations and could serve therefore as predictor or detector of the
appearance of the pathology. Longitudinal studies could therefore
be of use in future research to test this v iew.
On the limitation side of our experiment, the fact that the gam-
blers group was composed mostly of men could be problematic.
Despite our leaving the experiment online for 6 months we were
unable to obtain more female gamblers to participate in the study.
This might reflect, on the one hand, their lower proportion in the
general population (Desai et al., 2005; Blanco et al., 2006), and
on the other one, their great er reluctance to publicly acknowledge
and discuss their condition, perhaps because gambling has been
traditionally regarded as a male activity (Potenza et al., 2001).
Thus, given the asymmetrical distribution of participants we were
unable to analyze the effect of gender on the observed results.
Nevertheless, previous research had shown that men tend to show
weaker illusions of control than women (Alloy and Abramson,
1979; Wong, 1982; Vyse, 1997; Wolfradt, 1997; Dag, 1999), which
suggests that, if anything, our gamblers group should have shown
a weaker, rather than a stronger, illusion than the control group,
had the results been confounded by gender. In any case, it will
be necessary to achieve better control of this variable in future
research.
Another potential problem is that we did not ask our partic-
ipants to provide any demographic or personal information in
addition to their age and gender. We always do it this way in order
to increase participation and to comply with ethical standards
on anonymity and privacy in our online experiments. However,
because in the current experiment group assignment was not
random, it might have occurred that the two groups differed by
chance in some par ticular variable, such a s, for instance, num-
ber of years of formal education, and this might have affected the
development of the illusion of control. We believe this is unlikely,
and reviews on related effects, such as superstitious beliefs, have
concluded that there are no consist ent results on the effects of
variables such as years of education, or even general intelligence,
on the development of these types of biased thinking (
Wiseman
and Watt, 2006). Nevertheless, it would also be desirable to obtain
information on a larger number of demographic variables in
future experiments.
To sum up, we believe that the use of the medical associative
learning task may be an appropriate way to measure the illusion
of control, not only in the general population but also in people
with patholog y such as gambling, which seems to be especially
vulnerable to this type of illusion. One advantage of the asso-
ciative learning task that we used is that it can easily detect the
illusion of control in more genera l conditions and life areas, not
necessarily related to pathology. Moreover, this procedure pro-
vides a less clinical perspective and is more focused on general
associative-learning skills, so that the biases it detects are, at least
in principle, domain-independent and common to most people,
though some people are more vulnerable than others. This should
allow researchers and therapists to use the large amount of already
published evidence on contingency learning to test new and inno-
vative strategies to reduce these biases in pathological gamblers
(and other) populations under clinical treatment.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
Support for this research was provided by Grant 2011-26965 from
Dirección General de Investigación of the Spanish Government,
and Grant IT363-10 from Departamento de Educación,
Universidades e Investigación of the Basque Government. We
would like to thank the Spanish Federation of Rehabilitated
Gamblers (FEJAR) for their valuable support on this research.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to
Cristina Orgaz, Departamento de Psicología Básica I, UNED,
Juan del Rosal 10, Madrid (scorgaz@psi.uned.es) or to Helena
Matute, Departamento de Psicología, Universidad de Deusto,
Apartado 1, 48080 Bilbao, Spain (matute@deusto.es).
www.frontiersin.org June 2013 | Volume 4 | Article 306 | 5
Orgaz et al. Illusion of control in gamblers
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Conflict of Interest Statement: The
authors declare that the research
was conducted in the absence of any
commercial or financial relationships
that could be construed as a potential
conflict of inter est.
Received: 28 December 2012; accepted:
13 May 2013; published online: 17 June
2013.
Citation: Orgaz C, Estévez A and Matute
H (2013) Pathological gamblers are more
vulnerable to the illusion of control in
a standard associative learning task.
Front. Psychol. 4:306. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.
2013.00306
This article was submitted to Frontiers
in Personality Science and Individual
Differences, a specialty of Frontiers in
Psychology.
Copyright © 2013 Orgaz, Estévez
and Matute. This is an open-access
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E. J. Langer's paper, 'The illusion of control' (1975), showed that people act in ways that suggest they hold illusory beliefs in their ability to control the outcome of chance-determined games. This highly cited paper influenced the emerging field of gambling studies, and became a building block for cognitive approaches to problem gambling. Over time, this work has inspired therapeutic approaches based on cognitive restructuring, preventative programmes focused upon gambling myths and regulatory scrutiny of skill mechanics in modern gambling products. However, the psychological mechanisms underlying the 'illusion of control' remain elusive.
... Indeed, problem gamblers are likely to have distorted beliefs about randomness, overestimation of chances of winning, and illusions of control over winning, which have been found to obscure their capacity to implement sound choices regarding gambling (Steenberg et al., 2002;Goodie & Fortune, 2013;Perales et al., 2019). Research has also shown that problem gamblers typically endorse a wider range of erroneous beliefs (Devos et al., 2019;Wood & Williams, 2011), have a greater tendency to overestimate their control of outcomes (Orgaz et al., 2013) and to express stronger conviction in their endorsements (Sevigny & Ladouceur, 2004) compared to infrequent and controlled gamblers. ...
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Understanding how emotion regulation and gambling-related cognitive distortions relate to gambling problems has direct relevance for problem gambling prevention and treatment. Although these factors have been identified as robust psychological correlates for problem gambling, the interplay between emotional regulation and cognitive biases in influencing problem gambling behaviours is yet to be fully understood. Accordingly, this study examined the explanatory role of cognitive distortions in the association between emotion regulation difficulties and problem gambling behaviours and also explored the interaction between emotion regulation and cognitive distortions in predicting gambling severity. A total of 301 adults (182 males and 119 females; age range: 18–71 years, M = 32.62, SD = 10.03) completed an online questionnaire comprising measures of emotional regulation difficulties, gambling-related beliefs and problem gambling severity. Analyses revealed that emotion regulation difficulties and erroneous gambling beliefs were positively related to problem gambling severity. Further, cognitive distortions partially accounted for the relationship between emotional regulation difficulties and problem gambling, although emotion regulation retained a direct relationship with problem gambling. There was no interaction between emotional regulation and cognitive distortions. The findings indicate that emotion regulation may serve as a precursor to the development of cognitive distortions, while also directly influencing problem gambling. Implications for assessment and treatment of problem gambling are discussed.
... i.e., the erroneous belief that streaks of bad luck are bound to end in a win. In a similar vein, Perales et al. (2017) found gamblers with stronger biases to perform better than gamblers with weaker biases on non-gambling related causal learning tasks [for a different, although compatible, result, see Orgaz et al. (2013)]. The abovementioned study by Lambos and Delfabbro (2007), beyond the association between gambling problems and general understanding of odds, also found such a measure of odds understanding to be unpredictive of gambling-related irrational beliefs. ...
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Background Distorted gambling-related cognitions are tightly related to gambling problems, and are one of the main targets of treatment for disordered gambling, but their etiology remains uncertain. Although folk wisdom and some theoretical approaches have linked them to lower domain-general reasoning abilities, evidence regarding that relationship remains unconvincing. Method In the present cross-sectional study, the relationship between probabilistic/abstract reasoning, as measured by the Berlin Numeracy Test (BNT), and the Matrices Test, respectively, and the five dimensions of the Gambling-Related Cognitions Scale (GRCS), was tested in a sample of 77 patients with gambling disorder and 58 individuals without gambling problems. Results and interpretation Neither BNT nor matrices scores were significantly related to gambling-related cognitions, according to frequentist (MANCOVA/ANCOVA) analyses, performed both considering and disregarding group (patients, non-patients) in the models. Correlation Bayesian analyses (bidirectional BF 10 ) largely supported the null hypothesis, i.e., the absence of relationships between the measures of interest. This pattern or results reinforces the idea that distorted cognitions do not originate in a general lack of understanding of probability or low fluid intelligence, but probably result from motivated reasoning.
... The evidence for increased engagement with counterfactual processing in GD could fuel the development of gambling-related cognitive distortions including the effects of near-misses (Wu et al., 2017), overconfidence (Petrocelli & Crysel, 2009) and preferences for illusory control. These distortions -at a broad level -are elevated in GD (Goodie, 2005;Orgaz, Estevez, & Matute, 2013;Sescousse et al., 2016). However, this interpretation would predict significant correlations between the regret measures and the GRCS, for which we did not find support (the r 2 indicates only 3% shared variance). ...
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... Firstly, both samples were compared for these variables. The results showed that the clinical sample scored higher on gambling severity, cognitive distortions, materialism, and gambling motives, which aligns well with existing empirical evidence (Orgaz et al. 2013;Sivagnanam et al. 2018;Sundqvist et al. 2016;Tabri et al. 2017). In the community sample, gambling severity correlated with gambling motives and cognitive distortions. ...
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... This is probably why unidirectional scales are popular in the research field of contingency learning. In any case, the effects studied in these experiments, such as the OD bias, have been reported both with unidirectional (Musca et al., 2010;Orgaz, Estévez & Matute, 2013) and bidirectional scales (Perales, Navas, Ruiz de Lara, et al., 2017;Perales & Shanks, 2003), with almost no substantial differences (Blanco & Matute, 2020). However, future studies could take into account the possibility that the type of scale plays a role, by testing and comparing different scales to each other. ...
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... Personal biases play a key role in this phenomenon as gamblers tend to attribute their wins to personal skill, whereas losses are rationalised as the result of some external uncontrollable event [48]. Stronger illusions of control have been found in problem gamblers compared with healthy controls which suggests they may be etiologically linked to problem gambling [49]. The important role of cognitive distortions in the development and maintenance of problem gambling is emphasised in key conceptual models of gambling addiction [50-52] and in the treatment of gambling disorders [53]. ...
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