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Journal Information
Journal ID (publisher-id): jgi
ISSN: 1910-7595
Publisher: Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
Article Information
Article Categories: JGI Scholar's Award
Publication date: December 2016
Publisher Id: jgi.2016.34.8
DOI: 10.4309/jgi.2016.34.8

Moderate-Risk and Problem Slot Machine Gamblers: A Typology of Gambling-Related Cognitions

Special Issue: 2015 JGI Scholar’s Award, Category B

Tara Elisa Hahmann Department of Sociology, University of Toronto, ON, Canada


Cognitive distortions are said to play a key role in the development and maintenance of problem gambling, as well as in its treatment. Toneatto’s (1999, 2002) typology of gambling distortions provides a useful conceptualization of gambling-related cognitions, although game-type specification is absent from his analysis. Toneatto’s categorization was used in the present study to organize the beliefs of 43 slot machine gamblers experiencing either moderate-risk or problem gambling, recruited and interviewed in Toronto, Canada. The typology captured many of the gambling-related cognitions, although specific beliefs held by this sample of slot machine gamblers required revision of the original typology. This study provides unique insight into the cognitive structure of these beliefs, as described by gamblers, and their frequency count, suggesting that game type is an important factor when identifying and describing gambling-specific cognitive distortions.

Keywords: gambling subtypes, cognitive distortions, qualitative methods, irrational beliefs, slot machine gambling


Les distorsions cognitives joueraient un rôle dans l’apparition et le maintien des problèmes de jeu, ainsi que dans leur traitement (Cunningham, Hodgins et Toneatto, 2014; Cunningham, Hodgins, Toneatto et Murphy, 2012; Fortune et Goodie, 2012). La typologie des distorsions cognitives liées au jeu de Toneatto (1999, 2002) est à ce titre un outil utile pour conceptualiser les processus cognitifs des joueurs, bien que l’analyse ne précise pas les types de jeux de hasard en cause (Milosevic et Ledgerwood, 2010). Le présent article cherche à organiser à l’aide des catégories de Toneatto (1999, 2002) les croyances de 43 utilisateurs d’appareils à sous présentant un risque moyen ou problématique, recrutés et interviewés à Toronto (Canada). En conclusion, cette typologie permet de rendre compte de nombreux processus cognitifs liés au jeu, bien que certaines des croyances propres à cet échantillon de joueurs utilisant des appareils à sous aient nécessité une révision des catégories initiales. Fournissant un aperc¸u unique de la structure cognitive associée à ces croyances, telles qu’elles ont été décrites par les joueurs et selon leur nombre d’occurrences, cette étude donne à penser que le type de jeu de hasard en cause constitue un facteur important pour cerner et décrire les distorsions cognitives rattachées au jeu.


It is well documented that gamblers’ maintain erroneous beliefs1 that assume causal explanations in games of chance (Fortune & Goodie, 2012; Goodie & Fortune, 2013). Such beliefs are also said to be more pronounced in problem versus social gamblers (Joukhador, Blaszczynski, &MacCallum, 2004). The importance of these beliefs in understanding gambling behaviour is well demonstrated by the wealth of research on them and by the published instruments used to measure distortions in gamblers (Goodie & Fortune, 2013). A growing area of interest in the gambling literature is specification by gambling subtype, including by game type (Raylu & Oei, 2002; Toneatto & Millar, 2004; Toneatto, Turner, Zack, Farvolden, & Bagby, 2007). Important game type differences in cognitive biases have been alluded to (Czerny, Koenig, & Turner, 2008), although little research has focused on this area. Myrseth, Brunborg, and Eidem’s (2010) study is one exception, in which the authors found that the illusion of control was more pronounced for individuals favouring games of skill versus games of chance.

The most detailed account of gambling-related cognitions (Toneatto, 1999, 2002) lists and describes an array of cognitive distortions known to occur in heavy gamblers. This typology provides a necessary conceptualization of gambling cognitions, but its construction relies on data from a range of studies with heterogeneous samples, including studies without subtype specification and samples of recreational gamblers who are not experiencing gambling problems (Toneatto, 1999). A fuller understanding of these beliefs is particularly important in light of research that suggests cognitive distortions play a role in the conduct and development of pathological gambling (Cunningham, Hodgins, & Toneatto, 2014; Goodie & Fortune, 2013). Thus, researchers describe therapies that emphasize correction of disordered thinking as having good promise (Fortune & Goodie, 2012).

This study frames the analysis of 43 in-depth interviews in a sample of moderate-risk and problem slot machine gamblers by using Toneatto’s (2002) conceptualization to assess belief types.

Literature Review

Cognitive distortions, or beliefs and practices held and used by gamblers to help determine or procure a gambling outcome, are reported to play a fundamental role in the maintenance and development of gambling problems (Cunningham et al., 2014; Fortune & Goodie, 2012; Toneatto & Millar, 2004). Research on problem versus social gamblers demonstrates the greater likelihood of those experiencing problem gambling endorsing such beliefs (Joukhador et al., 2004; Myrseth et al., 2010). As the frequency of gambling progresses, biased and distorted cognitive schemas appear and shape beliefs about attribution, personal skill, control over outcome, biased evaluations, and erroneous perceptions, including superstitious thinking (Ladouceur & Walker, 1996; Toneatto, 1999, 2002). How these beliefs influence behaviour is not clear, the most conclusive finding being that cognitive schemas appear to be a precursor to problem gambling behaviour (Goodie & Fortune, 2013; Ledgerwood & Petry, 2010).

Gamblers’ core cognitive distortion lies in the belief that they can predict or control gambling outcomes. Cognitive therapy (CT) is applied to help correct such beliefs (Toneatto, 2002). Smith, Battersby, Harvey, Pols, and Ladouceur (2015) conducted a randomized controlled trial comparing CT and exposure-based therapies in a sample of treatment-seeking electronic gaming machine (EGM) gamblers and found that CT is a viable and effective treatment for problem gambling. CT involves creating awareness of these distortions and attempts to modify them by helping problem gamblers understand that they possess false beliefs (Ladouceur, 2004; Ladouceur, Sylvain, Boutin, Lachance, Doucet, & Leblond, 2001; Ladouceur & Walker, 1998; Smith et al., 2015; Sylvain, Ladouceur, & Boisvert, 1997). As Toneatto (1999) explains, gamblers make ‘‘decisions that can be powerfully influenced by cognitive biases, distortions in reasoning and errors in judgement’’ (p. 1594), believing they can predict, manipulate, or somehow decipher an indiscernible and indeterminable outcome.

According to Toneatto (1999), a full understanding of these cognitions, including how they can be identified in treatment, requires an understanding of their phenomenology. Toneatto (1999) identified a vast array of distortion types that were derived from an extensive review of the literature on gambling-related cognitions that included a qualitative study of cognitive distortions (Toneatto, Blitz-Miller, Calderwood, Dragonetti, & Tsanos, 1997). The samples used to derive this typology included non-problem gamblers and university students or adolescents, thus risking the application of widespread generalizations to heterogeneous samples. Gambling subtypes (Blaszczynski & Nower, 2002; Lobo et al., 2014; Milosevic & Ledgerwood, 2010), including game-type differentiation, has become an important consideration for problem gambling research and treatment (Ledgerwood & Petry, 2010; Raylu & Oei, 2002; Toneatto et al., 2007). Although earlier research focused on irrational beliefs without game type specification (Gaboury & Ladouceur, 1989; Toneatto, 1999 researchers now acknowledge important differences in cognitive schemas by game type (Czerny et al., 2008), with some evidence lending support to these observations (Myrseth et al., 2010). This raises the questions: What gambling-related distortions emerge from a sample of problem and moderate-risk slot machine gamblers? How are these distortions described by gamblers? Which distortions occur most frequently?



A total of 43 adults who were moderate-risk (35%) or problem (65%) slot machine gamblers were recruited from Toronto, Ontario, via online and paper-based classified advertisements. Participants were screened by the principal investigator using the Lie-Bet instrument, a brief screening tool. During the interview, participants were assessed with the Problem Gambling Severity Index. As women are thought to favour games of chance (Hing & Breen, 2001), in order to avoid oversampling them, efforts were made to recruit an equal proportion of men and women. All participants had to be of legal gambling age, that is, 18 years or over. The sample demographics are outlined in Table 1. A semi-structured interview guide was administered to individual participants by the principal investigator, who asked questions centred on gambling-related beliefs, ritual activity, and gambling-centred social processes, but participants were encouraged to expand on their beliefs, ideas, and experiences throughout the interview. Feminist epistemological insight (Devault, 1990) was used to empower participants through interviewing. The principal investigator elevated the participants’ insights above her own, which is particularly important for a population who is aware of the perceived irrationality of their beliefs, including felt stigma (Baxter, Salmon, Dufresne, Carasco-Lee, & Matheson, 2015). Participants were situated in the role of the ‘‘expert’’ regarding their lives and were referred to this role by the principal investigator during the interview when necessary. A set of demographic questions was asked at the end of the interview. Interviews lasted between 60 and 120 min. All participants were provided with a $20.00 honorarium, with the monetary compensation being disclosed by the principal investigator only when asked by the participants in order to avoid its influence on their decision to participatein an attempt to avoid coercion.

The sample composition (Table 1) includes a high percentage of people aged 41 years or older (67%) who have engaged only in slot machine gambling (86%) and who have never been married (42%). Most had some post-secondary education (75%) and reported a gross annual income lower than $40,000 (56%). The majority of participants were ethnically tied to Europe, followed by the British Isles; various parts of Asia were well represented (25.6%) as was the Caribbean (14%). Over half the participants were Canadian born (56%).

Table 1. Sample Composition (N = 43)



The study was approved by the Research Ethics Board of the University of Toronto and all participants gave informed consent. Interviews were audio-taped, transcribed verbatim, de-identified to ensure anonymity, and coded for emergent themes by the principal investigator with NVivo, qualitative analysis software. Axial coding was performed by using a ‘‘coding paradigm’’ informed by an existing and analytically selected framework (Strauss & Corbin, 1990, 1998). In this case, the pre-set categories were determined by Toneatto’s (2002) typology. Negative cases, that is, data running counter to the typology, were coded separately to account for cognitive distortions not represented by Toneatto’s (2002) classification.


Using the Toneatto (2002) conceptualization, the principal investigator organized the beliefs of this sample into categories, as shown in Table 2; modifications are presented as italicized text.2 All participants held at least one gambling-related cognition; their frequency distribution is presented in Table 3.

The typology accounted for most beliefs reported by participants; however, some categories were not relevant to these data, and emergent belief types required the addition of several categories and descriptors. One category and four subcategories were created to account for the findings, and four descriptors were added to existing categories. Additionally, two categories and two subcategories were omitted from the typology. These additions and omissions are shown in Table 2, and a further edited version of the original typology, including verbatim quotations, can be seen in Table 4.

Table 2. Gambling-Related Cognitive Distortions: A Modified Typology


Karma was added as a category to capture beliefs referencing moral cause and effect. Tempered avidity or moral worth demonstrated by thoughts, actions, and overall mind states (e.g., relaxed/not eager) were perceived by the study’s participants to have an impact on gambling outcomes.

Magnified Gambling Skill was revised to include three subcategories to account for emergent strategy types. That is, Magnified Gambling Skill remained a catchment category for any gambling-related system specified by the sample, with subcategories to account for frequently specified types. The subcategories added include the following: (a) Hot Machine to account for the belief that machines in constant play will pay out, (b) Bet Max to account for the belief that placing a maximum bet on the machines will increase the chances of a win and the total winnings,3 and (c) Higher Denomination Machines to account for the belief that higher denomination machines will pay out more often and in greater amounts. Lastly, Representative Bias was added as a subcategory in Attribution Biases to house the belief that a machine that has just won will not immediately pay out again.

Findings demanded the modification of existing descriptors as well. Under the existing subcategory Luck as a Trait, a descriptor was added to represent the emergent belief that luck is related not only to game types, but also to machine types for this sample of slot machine gamblers. Similarly, for the subcategory Cognitive Superstition, focus or positive mind state was added to the original description. For Luck as a Variable, manipulation of luck occurred not only through superstitious behaviours but also through cognitions, which were specified in the modified description. The existing category Illusory Correlation required a focused specification, with all participants who endorsed this belief referencing spatial-oriented cognitions. In particular, participants referenced areas of the casino where machines were prone to win and/or produce significant payouts.

Two subcategories and two categories were not applicable and were later omitted from the modified typology. The subcategories Attribution Errors and Temporal Telescoping under the category Attribution Biases did not emerge from the data. Specifically, participants did not amplify their skill and nullify thoughts on probability and luck in the same sentence or idea, leading to the removal of this subcategory. Concerning the latter subcategory, Temporal Telescoping, although near wins were frustrating, participants failed to convey that this meant a win was near. Selective Memory and Probability Biases did not warrant specific categorization. In the end, most of the beliefs in the typology, in one way or another, disregarded probability theory or involved the memory of select events, especially those with a favourable outcome.

The most frequently occurring distortion types (Table 3) were Cognitive Superstitions, Gambler’s Fallacy, and Over-Interpretation of Cues, whereas Anthropomorphism, Aligning with Luck, and Luck as a Variable occurred far less frequently.

Table 3. Gambling-Related Cognitive Distortions: Frequencies


Although the typology outlined by Toneatto (2002) offers a number of categories and descriptions, it lacks illustrative examples to give voice to categorization. Illustrative examples are provided in Table 4 to convey the tone and structure of gambling-related cognitions, each quotation representing a unique voice from the sample of 43 gamblers.

Table 4. Gambling-Related Cognitive Distortions: A Modified Typology, Illustrative Examples



The cognitive distortions found here align with the distortion types outlined by Toneatto (2002). However, in the present study, Toneatto’s (2002) typology required the addition of one category, four subcategories, and four descriptors, along with the omission of two categories and two subcategories. These findings lend some support to Czerny and colleagues’ (2008) suggestion that important differences in cognitive biases may vary by game type.

Indeed, many of the distortions explored here are specific to slot machine gambling. That is, several new belief types added to the category Magnified Gambling Skill account for machine-specific beliefs. Additional modification of the existing typology is equally reflective of the focus on slot machine gambling. For instance, the new description for Luck as a Trait references a game-type-specific belief that certain machines are luckier than others. Of relevance to bricks and mortar casino gambling, Illusory Correlation accounts for beliefs centred on the physical or spatial location of slot machines within a casino. Because slot machine gambling is exclusively chance based, the addition of the descriptor ‘‘focus’’ to cognitive superstition is noteworthy, although the idea of ‘‘positive mind states’’ lends itself to a game type devoid of control. Karma, another category with a cognition focus, emerged from the data, this time making reference to moral cause and effect. Analogous to King’s (1990) bingo players who believed wins would be awarded to those not expecting it, gamblers from this study indicated that tempered avidity increased the chances of a win. By the same token, the descriptor ‘‘cognition’’ was added to the subcategory Luck as a Variable to capture thought-oriented beliefs.

Representative Bias emerged from the data, although it was absent from Toneatto’s (2002) typology. The gambler’s fallacy is caused by the representativeness heuristic according to Tversky and Kahneman (1971) and Kahneman and Tversky (1972), which may underlie the absence of the category Representative Bias, with the category Gambler’s Fallacy perhaps accounting for both. In the present study, they were treated as two categories. Although both categorizations reference the ‘‘self-correcting process in which a deviation in one direction induces a deviation in the opposite direction to restore the equilibrium’’ (Tversky & Kahneman, 1974, p. 1125), Gambler’s Fallacy had undertones of fairness (i.e., I am due for a win after repeated loss), whereas Representative Bias was focused on equilibrium restoration (i.e., a machine producing a jackpot requires time before it does so again).

The categories Selective Memory and Probability Biases as these categorizations were nested in many of the other belief types. Temporal telescoping, a subcategory specified in the Toneatto (2002) categorization, failed to emerge from the data. It is conceivable, however, that the problem gamblers in the present study merely failed to convey verbally what was implied through action because near misses are described as powerful motivators for gambling behaviour (Dixon et al., 2011; Dixon, MacLaren, Jarick, Fugelsang, & Harrigan, 2013). Indeed, participants from this study articulated various cognitive distortion types, adding to existingresearch that highlights their presence in samples of problem and/or heavy gamblers. This study lends support to game-type specification. Additionally, the articulation of such beliefs may help researchers and clinicians gain a better sense of them, including their cognitive structure. Clinicians applying problem gambling-specific CT, which seeks to clarify the concept of randomness and increase awareness about erroneous beliefs and restructure them, would benefit from a list of distortion types and descriptive examples. Smith and colleagues (2015) administered CT over the course of 12 weekly sessions to a sample of treatment-seeking electronic gaming machine gamblers, where cognition was a therapeutic focus. Sessions involved patients monitoring their thoughts through diary entries while a therapist also worked with them to develop skills to challenge and cast doubt on erroneous cognitions that led to excessive gambling (Smith et al., 2015). A list of game-type-specific cognitions could aid in belief identification and awareness creation as treatment-seeking patients, with a particular game-type preference, move through the course of CT treatment.

The greater prevalence of certain cognitions, especially those linked to what Ejova, Delfabbro, and Navarro (2015) call ‘‘secondary’’ illusion of control, or a complex set of beliefs about supernatural forces such as God and luck, is a finding warranting further exploration. Cognitive distortions are connected to notions of individual control; however, many of the identified beliefs referenced secondary illusion. The notion of agency is an important factor worthy of enhanced focus in future studies on cognitive distortions. The findings here suggest the need for insight into whether specific distortion types have a greater impact on problem gambling severity.

This study is not impervious to limitations. The research draws on a small convenience sample from a specific geographic area, with findings not generalizable to the larger population. The sample is a mix of both moderate-risk and problem gamblers, and despite the larger sample of the latter, certain gambling cognitions might be correlated with gambling severity. Other subtypes, beyond game type, might be important considerations, although they are not reflected on here. Finally, verbatim quotations only represent one unique voice from the study, which limits the reporting of variations in the structure and tone of belief types within specific categories highlighted in Table 2.


This is the first study of its kind to use qualitative data to assess the applicability of a comprehensive list of distortion types found in other studies of gamblers. This research adds to the growing body of literature that concerns subtype specification. Additionally, it suggests the need for game-type specification when considering gambling-related cognitions. Certain belief types are most likely a reflection of game types and their associated environment. Although much has been written about the importance of subtype considerations for understanding problem gambling, more research is needed on cognitive variations among game types and the impact of particular distortions on problem gambling severity.


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1Irrational/erroneous beliefs and cognitive distortions/biases are used interchangeably throughout.

2The typology presented here was modified from the original source: Toneatto (2002).

3To win a jackpot on some machines, a player needs to bet the maximum to collect the win. However, the average return to the player is still set at a specific range, and random number generators do not assess whether a player has bet all possible lines. Gamblers notice a difference only if they experience the infrequent big win. In the end, gamblers pay more to play, which increases the speed at which their money is lost, likely leading to larger overall losses (British Columbia Responsible Gambling, 2015).

Submitted September 30, 2015; accepted November 2, 2016. This article was peer reviewed. All URLs were available at the time of submission.

For correspondence: Tara Hahmann, Ph.D., Department of Sociology, University of Toronto, 725 Spadina Avenue, Toronto, ON M5S 2J4.

E-mail: Competing interests: None declared.

Ethics approval: The University of Toronto Ethics Review Committee for Human Research approved this research study on May 4, 2012 (#27651).

Acknowledgements: This research was supported by an Ontario Problem Gambling Research Centre Capacity Development Grant (#3594).

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