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Information overload, political issues, global pandemics: it’s hard to avoid the many potential triggers of cognitive dissonance in the world today. 

A concept devised by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957, cognitive dissonance is when inconsistencies arise between an individual’s beliefs, values or attitudes and their actual behaviour or choices.

Festinger states that an individual experiencing this dissonance will seek to resolve it — whether by changing their behaviour, or through defence mechanisms such as avoidance or rationalisation.

Take smoking for example. Someone may understand the associated health risks, but rather than quit, they limit the impact of the dissonance by downplaying the dangers, or focusing on short-term benefits like stress relief. 

Cognitive dissonance is apparent within the gambling world, but what risk does it pose, and how can we encourage people to look more closely at their betting habits?

Gambler’s fallacy

At an individual level, gamblers can display cognitive dissonance in a number of ways. One common case is a gambler’s belief in how much time or money they spend on gambling.

As an example, they may have set a personal limit of £10 a week. However, when taking into consideration bonus wagering requirements or even payment method fees, it’s easy to exceed this limit — particularly if the individual has a habit of consciously dismissing these little extras each week. 

The main risk with this type of thought pattern is when dissonance leads to unhealthy patterns of betting.

Even though a gambler’s true spend may far exceed their own perception, they may simply dismiss their behaviour as a rare or one-off occasion.

There’s also evidence of exacerbating individual cognitive dissonance by the actions of gambling operators themselves.

Operator responsibility

Welcome offers of ‘risk-free bets’ come to mind. This wording could misrepresent the inherent dangers of gambling and diminish the potential for addiction, particularly for new players who may not understand the various tripwire terms and conditions attached. 

On the casino side, game design plays an important role. Before the practice was prohibited by the UK Gambling Commission in 2021, many slots would represent any return as a win — even if it was less than the total stake — in turn giving players a false idea of how much they’d actually spent.

The UKGC’s move to ban this type of game behaviour was a significant step towards greater clarity and a reduction in cognitive dissonance for players. Nonetheless, the need to scrutinise regulations and enable users to gamble on transparent platforms remains.

Taking a more macroscopic view, it’s hard not to think of the discussion that’s recently been across the news. Namely, the FA’s banning of front-of-shirt betting operator sponsorships.

It’s believed this motion will reduce the temptation to place a bet. Yet, away from the shirts, enormous visibility of gambling adverts remains in view of sports fans and TV cameras.

The FA may feel they’re doing their part when it comes to reducing gambling harms, but is this just one more example of cognitive dissonance? Or worse: an orchestrated illusion of social responsibility?

Wider society

Ultimately, the topic of gambling is controversial and divides opinion. On one end of the spectrum, we hear calls for the entire ban on betting.

Meanwhile, more casual gamblers don’t see the problem, buying the occasional EuroMillions lottery ticket. There are even online slot games aimed at younger family members.

The UKGC recently ruled that loot boxes in video games sit outside the purview of the Gambling Act 2005 amidst concerns they could encourage children to gamble.

Once more, it seems there’s a cognitive dissonance at play. If society’s message is that gambling is bad, why aren’t we doing more to prevent harmful habits from taking hold?

As usual, there’s a role to play at each level of the industry. Operator transparency in terms of brand messaging and clear bonus T&Cs is vital, as is the fantastic work of the UK’s many responsible gambling organisations. 

But this will only be beneficial if an individual is honest with themselves about what they’re betting on, and how much time and money they’re spending each session.

Tracking tools can aid here, helping align a user’s own perceptions of their betting with the hard facts.

Thus, cognitive dissonance itself could even have its benefits — and with greater awareness of the underpinning psychology, it could be harnessed to help players develop healthier gambling habits.

Alice Soule is a content editor for TopRatedCasinos.co.uk, a leading sports betting and casino affiliate based in London that operates across the US, Canada and UK markets. During her time in the industry, Alice has developed a particular interest in safer gambling measures.

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