That’s How You Go Full Tilt: Superstition and Counterfactual Thinking in Gambling

Picture Credit: Roulette Board

There are three types of people when it comes to gambling. The first group relies on mathematical statistics to inform their risk appetite, the second relies on superstition or causal reasoning to justify luckiness and last group abstains from gambling entirely. Make a trip to Crown Melbourne and you may be able to differentiate these groups rather easily. Individuals attempting to hedge bets across the roulette board, a collective of tourists “ganging up” on the dealer slapping large bets on the blackjack table and by-standers observing in fascination and disbelief.

While there are no shortages of tips on the internet to “beat the house”, see how “tilt” can derail even the hardy analytical gambler in Molly’s Game (2017).

Tilt is commonly defined as a temporary cognitive impairment that erases a gambler’s risk calculation strategies in favour of aggressive gambling methods. Tilt is resultant from losing a large bet in a public and humiliating fashion.

From an anthropological perspective, I briefly illustrate how we can “rethink” tilt as a combination of superstition and counterfactual thinking. 

Superstition is a non-empiricist belief resultant from a supernatural or false conception of causation (Chen & Young 2018, p.1098). Many cultural and situational factors influence the tendency to engage in superstition such as stress, feelings of precarity, peer pressures, or even anthropomorphic beliefs (applying human-like traits to nonhuman objects or concepts). For example, getting pooped by birds is often thought to symbolise good luck in many cultures. Informed by this cultural conception, it increases one’s optimism in future outcomes, especially towards ‘get rich quick’ circumstances.

Counterfactual thinking is the process where an individual imagines an alternate event that seeks to console the experience of losing in reality. The individual manipulates his or her emotions and behaviour in downplaying the effects of losing and up-playing the potential to recoup the gambling deficit (Kim, Kwon & Hyun 2015, p.237). In Molly’s Game, Harlan was already on tilt for two nights, but he insisted to Molly that he needed to borrow $500K to gamble back to even. In this case, Harlan is using counterfactual thinking to justify the false conception of causation as well, asserting that he will stop gambling the moment he gets back to even and expressing a belief that luck is now in his favour and affecting his life outcome. To regain control, Harlan harbours superstition as a coping strategy to garner good luck by specifying his goal of making it back to even. In this way, there is a positive relationship between luck, superstition and counterfactual thinking.

Going tilt is often not only a psychological phenomenon but also influenced through a complex of social and cultural factors. I find Paul Bohannan’s “rethinking of culture” as a symbiosis of biological and socially constructed systems to be helpful in drawing an analogy to think about tilt (1973, p.371). Bohannan suggests viewing culture as double coded information, one coded in the brain and another coded through language (1973, p.374). In the same way, we are simultaneously affected by fear from biological instincts that alerts us from dangers and cultural factors such as shame that can allude us to feel low.   

In sum, anthropology can benefit from greater interdisciplinary collaborations involving the body and cultural normativity. This can create a more richly textured ethnography to understand the self. So, the next time you see a friend going tilt in life, use anthropology to “save” him, for better or for worse.


Bohannan, P, Blacking, J, Bock, B, Colby, BN, DeRaedt, J, Epstein, DG, Fischer, JL, Gjessing, G, Hewes, GW, Hay, TH, Markarian, E, Panoff, M, Schneider, DM & Voight, WJ 1973, ‘Rethinking Culture: A Project for Current Anthropologists [and Comments and Reply]’, Current Anthropology, vol. 14, no. 4, pp. 357–372.

Chen, N & Young, MJ 2018, ‘The Relationship Between Belief in Stable Luck and a Propensity for Superstition: The Influence of Culturally Conferred Agency Beliefs’, Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, vol. 49, no. 7, pp. 1098–1113.

Kim, SR, Kwon, Y-S & Hyun, M-H 2015, ‘The Effects of Belief in Good Luck and Counterfactual Thinking on Gambling Behavior’, Journal of Behavioural Addictions, vol. 4, no. 4, pp. 236–243.

See Also:

Maddie’s piece on What’s the Point of it All?

Dyan’s piece on cultural relativism

Lani’s piece on Magic

Imogen’s piece on Clubbing