Sympathetic magic and gambling: Adherence to the Law of Contagion varies with gambling severity


This study assessed adherence to the law of contagion by 118 undergraduate students (39 males). Participants were students who played a slot machine game after viewing a prior player who seemed to be winning (“lucky” condition) or losing (“unlucky” condition). Adherence to the law of contagion was assessed by the selection of the coin holder used by a “lucky” prior player and the avoidance of the coin holder used by an “unlucky” prior player. Contagion varied directly with scores on the Problem Gambling Severity Index and scores on the Luck/Perseverance subscale of the Gamblers’ Belief Questionnaire (Steenbergh et al. in Psychol Addict Behav 16(2):143–149, 2002). Gamblers high in problem severity chose the “lucky” coin holder and avoided the “unlucky” coin holder significantly more than gamblers low in problem severity. Problem gamblers, therefore, exhibit evidence of magical thinking related to the transfer of a “lucky” essence. The same was the case for individuals with a strong level of belief that sheer continuation in gambling (luck perseverance) results in success and for individuals who believe that luck is a personal rather than a situational characteristic. All three variables (problem gambling severity, luck perseverance and personal luck) had direct effects on behavior reflecting irrational magical thinking. A belief that knowledge or skill has a role in successful gaming was unrelated to magical thinking. These findings suggest potential foci for cognitive interventions with problem gamblers and those with non-skill based evidence of irrational thinking.

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