The United States recently crossed a threshold where the majority of states offer sports betting (American Gaming Association, 2022). Since the 2018 US Supreme Court ruling that gave states the power to establish their own sports betting laws, there has been a veritable “gold rush” in online gambling expansion—the most recent addition being Ohio, which legalized sports betting this month.
The growth in sports betting has been staggering, with Americans legally betting more than $125 billion since the US Supreme Court’s ruling four years ago (Associated Press, 2022), which is more money than Americans spend on pets annually ($123 billion, according to the American Pet Products Association, 2022).
This court ruling has significantly changed the sports betting landscape both legally and psychologically. Previously, most people who legally bet on sports had to travel to Nevada. Now, as sports gambling spreads throughout the country, states like New Jersey and New York record more sports wagers annually than Nevada (legalsportsbetting.com, 2022).
In a study of more than 6 million UK citizens over a seven-year period (Muggleton et al., 2021), greater gambling was associated with more financial distress (eg, missed mortgage payments, less savings), poorer health (eg, less physical fitness, greater sleeplessness), and more isolation (eg, fewer social activities, less travel). Although gambling disorder (the DSM-V classification) has an estimated prevalence rate of just .5 percent of American adults, the number of people who experience adverse effects from gambling is likely to grow considerably in the years ahead (Potenza et al., 2019 ).
Allen R McConnell
Although the consequences of having a gambling disorder can be dire (eg, marital problems, bankruptcy, suicide), everyday sports fans may suffer as the availability of sports wagering grows. In Ohio (the state that most recently legalized sports wagering), the Ohio Casino Control Commission (2023) has authorized 20 companies to offer mobile device gambling, and other companies have submitted applications as well.
Although gambling may not be inherently problematic, the ubiquity of mobile gambling bodes to be a game-changing event, likely to undercut the enjoyment of those who participate in sports wagering. Indeed, bettors who prefer mobile gambling (vs. in-person gambling) score higher on measures of problematic gambling (Lopez-Gonzalez et al., 2019). Rather than focusing on those who are diagnosed with gambling disorder (certainly a serious societal problem), let’s explore the psychology underlying how everyday people may find the easy availability of sports wagering to be self-defeating for their happiness (ignoring the meaningful toll that sports betting can have on their finances, relationships, and legal standingness).
More Betting Can Reduce Its Enjoyment
One of the problems with ubiquity is that it becomes more difficult to enjoy life’s pleasures. Indeed, Kahneman and Tversky’s (1979) classic prospect theory accounts for how increases in objective outcomes produce watered-down psychological experiences.
For instance, if one wins $10, it increases that person’s happiness. If, instead, one wins $20 dollars, one’s happiness would be greater than winning $10 but not twice as much as winning $10. In other words, it takes steeper increases in objective gains (in this case, dollars) to create commensurate increases in psychological pleasure.
Critical to prospect theory, gains and losses are viewed with respect to a frame of reference. If one wins three bets in a row, each subsequent win brings less enjoyment than the previous win. Events that happen during one psychological episode (eg, sitting at a blackjack table for an afternoon) are subject to this “diminishing returns” principle. Thus, if a gambler wins $10 each on 10 separate wagers, that person would experience more total happiness if each win takes place on different days (separate events) than if they happen on the same afternoon (the same frame, where diminishing returns weakens the joy experienced).
Thus, placing more bets and doing so in rapid succession will water down the joy of wins, which is more likely to occur when betters can simply “make another bet right now on my smartphone” rather than “have to wait until the next time I go back to Vegas” to bet again.
Gamblers know this experience very well. For example, if people are experiencing a series of wins at the blackjack table, they often raise their bets (eg, go from initial $5 bets to $10, then from $10 to $20) to feel the same rush of winning. This need to increase bets to create the same psychological juice is accounted for by prospect theory (ie, increasing objective wagers is the only way to maintain the psychological pleasure of wins over time).
If, however, a blackjack player was to stop playing at some point to eat dinner and then return to play blackjack again later that evening, the frame of reference would be reset and $5 bets would be sufficiently exciting, and the need to increase one’s bets for “the same juice” would be averted. The ease of placing additional bets immediately on one’s mobile phone, ironically, makes it less likely for one to experience a “frame reset” and thus, more risky bets are necessary to maintain the same sense of psychological engagement for the bettor.
Online Betting May Reduce Accountability and Increase Risky Betting
Accountability makes people more likely to behave responsibly, and thus, it seems likely that bettors may engage in riskier wagering if their bets are placed on smartphones than in person to an employee working at a sportsbook.
In psychology, it is well established that being deindividuated (not feeling accountable to others) increases harmful behaviors. In a classic study, trick-or-treating children were less likely to steal candy (ie, take several pieces of candy when told to only take one piece) when first asked for their name (triggering greater accountability) than when their names were not solicited (Diener et al., 1976).
In general, the more people feel invisible to others, the more likely they are to perform questionable behaviors (eg, Dodd, 1985). And to the extent that placing bets on phones rather than with people enhances anonymity, bettors should feel less self-conscious and more likely to place risky bets.
Associations Between Sports and Betting: Establishing New Norms of Behavior
Finally, another factor that makes the current state of sports wagering unprecedented is the amount of betting-related advertising and co-branding that has become common place. It is difficult now to find a sports venue that does not have promotions for sports betting, and TV screens and roadside billboards are plastered with commercials promoting sports wagering.
As people encounter more ads for sports betting, it not only increases people’s awareness of the companies involved but also conveys social norms (ie, behaviors that are common or desirable) about the pervasiveness of sports betting. Classic work in social psychology (eg, Warner & DeFleur, 1969) has established that people’s behavior is shaped by their perceptions of “what others are doing” even in cases when those norms go against one’s own values (eg, Schultz et al., 2007), and social influence research shows that people in ambiguous situations assume that others’ behaviors are indicators of “the right thing to do” (Asch, 1956; Latane & Darley, 1969). Thus, to the extent that sports betting advertising “is everywhere,” it conveys that sports wagering is something that everyone is doing, which increases the likelihood that new people will take up betting on sports.
Allen R McConnell
Furthermore, sports betting companies are often touted as “official partners” of various sports franchises, sports leagues, and even universities, adding official endorsement of sports betting. Whereas most sports took great strides to distance themselves from gambling for decades, now leagues and even universities actively promote betting.
Thus, fans are now exposed to intentional promotions in settings ranging from NFL football (NFL, 2021) to universities such as Michigan State (2022) where such arrangements are viewed with growing concern in that they may encourage “the next generation of bettors” ( college students who are just becoming betting-legal) to begin online wagers using school-sponsored promotions (Betts et al., 2022).
Of course, betting on sports is nothing new for its fans and or for college students. But seeing official partnerships providing “offer codes” in marketing tie-ins can establish the normalcy of sports betting for people who are just starting their adult consumer careers, grooming a new generation of bettors who often have not established their own financial independence.
In this post, I’ve focused on reasons why the recent expansion of sports gambling may, ironically, lead to less happiness among those who participate. Clearly, not everyone who gambles “has a problem” and for many people, sports wagering can be an exciting activity that can entertain, build social connections, and relieve stress. Gambling is not inherently evil.
However, large sample studies indicate that as people gamble more, they experience poorer social, financial, and well-being outcomes (Muggleton et al., 2021). Undoubtedly, it is tempting for people to engage in motivated reasoning (Epley & Gilovich, 2016; Kunda, 1990) and conclude “those negative consequences of gambling won’t happen to me.” In the long run, though, people should not assume they are immune to the self-defeating psychological processes that affect others (a classic self-illusion), including that more frequent gambling will likely undermine their own happiness. Ironically, though, it is the very belief that one can “defy the odds” that draws people to gambling in the first place!
Time will tell how the explosion of mobile gambling affects the millions who are wading into legal, accessible sports betting for the first time. The psychological literature provides some insights into what might lie ahead—and less overall happiness may be a sure bet.
Disclaimer: The views posted on this site are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.