The Gambler’s Fallacy

Harvey Dent from "The Dark Knight"

Harvey Dent from “The Dark Knight”

I learned about the Gambler’s Fallacy today in a Psychology class. It struck me in a way I don’t think my professor intended for it to.

The Gambler’s Fallacy basically explains the mindset that some people have in certain probability situations. For instance, they think because a slot machine hasn’t paid out in a while, it’s “due” for a win soon; because an all-star baseball player hasn’t hit a homerun in a while, he’s “due” and will more than likely hit one very soon.

To exemplify this concept, our professor asked for a fair coin from a student. He flipped it three times and, each time, he would ask us to write down our prediction for the next toss.  He recorded the results on the board after each toss: “Tails, tails, tails.” Before revealing the fourth result, he asked “How many people predict heads?” 26 of the 30 students revealed they were predicting heads, only 4 people were predicting another tails. He proceeded to support the definition of the fallacy; the fact that people use the logic that things are “due” to happen.

Stay with me.

What most likely happened was that 26 of the 30 students thought about the odds of flipping a coin and getting a head or tail. In theory, a head and a tail both have a 50% chance of coming up in one toss. Since there had been three tails flipped, chances are heads were “due”, because over time it should pan out to be an equal amount between the two. It can be presumed, though not proven, that a mindset of that sort was being used by 87% of the class.

I hope I haven’t lost you with all that math talk yet. I really do have a point that I’m trying to make here.

The idea that things are “due” to happen is indeed a fallacy; it is not grounds for a logical statement. The coin was not keeping track of what it was turning up. It had no control as to whether it would immediately balance out the three tails with three heads. To us, a head seemed “due”. In fact, most people picked that a head would show up after seeing three tails in a row. But the fact is that there could have been 10 more tails in a row. In due time, we can expect a head to show up to maintain a 50% chance for each, but thinking that something is “due” soon is not something to logically rely on.

Again, you may think I’m going off on a tangent and getting too technical in math talk. “What is it that you’re trying to say, Kevin?”

The point I’m making is that you cannot rely on the mindset that you are “due” for something. The example I will use first is a baseball team. Let’s say you’re the coach for a team that really sucks. Your players don’t know the fundamentals of the game, you have players in terrible physical condition, and no one has the motivation to learn. Because of this, your team loses 6 of their first 6 games. In this situation, you cannot use the logic that you are “due” for a win just because you’ve lost 6 in a row. Unless your team learns the fundamentals of the game, your players get in better shape, and you can motivate the team to try harder, a win will not be coming your way just to balance things out. You’re not “due” for a win if you don’t change anything. You actually need to work for things that you feel should be “due”.

My final example, the whole point I’m trying to make, is that the universe does not owe you anything. If you’ve had three bad days in a row, you’re not logically “due” for a good day tomorrow. It’s not as though the universe is keeping track of the kind of days you’re having and decides it will make everything easy for you the next day. You have to do something about it, such as changing your perspective on the things that appear to be “bad”. You won’t be handed a good day just to balance out the bad days. You need to take the steps necessary to make it a good day or to see things in a new light.

Don’t use the excuse that you’re “due” for something, then sit back and wait for the universe to hand it to you on a plate. Your baseball team isn’t “due” for a win if they suck and won’t do anything to improve. You’re not “due” for a good day if you mope around with a pessimistic attitude the next day. That’s not logical, it’s not always practical, and it’s not healthy thinking. If it’s something you can control, go out there and make that thing you’re “due” for, happen.

Additional comment: (If it’s something that seems “due”, but not something that you can control (a positive pregnancy test, the full recovery of a constantly sick relative), the fallacy still stands; just because it seems “due” does not logically mean it will work out. Perhaps you will never get a positive pregnancy test; perhaps your relative will never fully recover. These are things that are out of your control. I understand you can’t just “make things like these happen”. When it comes to these kinds of situations, I suggest prayer to help get you through. Prayer does not ensure that something “due” will in fact happen, but I’ve found it to be much more comforting than having no hope at all.)

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