Does problem gambling arise from an illusion that patterns exist where there are none? Our prior research suggested that “hot hand,” a tendency to perceive illusory streaks in sequences, may be a human universal, tied to an evolutionary history of foraging for clumpy resources. Like other evolved propensities, this tendency might be expressed more stongly in some people than others, leading them to see luck where others see only chance. If the desire to gamble is enhanced by illusory pattern detection, such individual differences could be predictive of gambling risk. While previous research has suggested a potential link between cognitive strategies and propensity to gamble, no prior study has directly measured gamblers' cognitive strategies using behavioral choice tasks, and linked them to risk taking or gambling propensities. Using a computerized sequential decision-making paradigm that directly measured subjects' predictions of sequences, we found evidence that subjects who have a greater tendency to gamble also have a higher tendency to perceive illusionary patterns, as measured by their preferences for a random slot machine over a negatively autocorrelated one. Casino gamblers played the random slot machine significantly more often even though a training phase and a history of outcomes were provided. Additionally, we found a marginally significant group difference between gamblers and matched community members in their slot-machine choice proportions. Performance on our behavioral choice task correlated with subjects' risk attitudes toward gambling and their frequency of play, as well as the selection of choice strategies in gambling activities.
Keywords: Addiction, Cognitive bias, Decision making, Gambling disorder, Hot hand, Pathological gambling, Risk taking