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The Psychology of Football Betting

Do you know what sets the most successful football bettors in the world apart from the rest? You might think that it’s their extensive football knowledge, or their excellent ability to make predictions. Maybe you think it’s because they’re really good with numbers, or that they’re able to consistently pick the right strategies to use.

Everything mentioned above will definitely help! It’s very difficult to make money from football betting without knowing a lot about the sport itself and the teams and players. It’s also difficult without certain skills and a solid understanding of the strategy involved. Still, none of these things are what REALLY make the difference.

The very best football bettors excel at objective thinking. They’re able to calmly assess all the relevant information at their disposal, and make rational decisions based on their findings. This is ultimately the key to making money.

And it’s a LOT harder than it sounds.

It’s easy to believe we’re thinking objectively when we’re actually not. There are all kinds of things that influence our decision-making processes, most of which we’re totally oblivious to. Our emotions can affect us without us knowing, for example, and there are various aspects of our own psychology that do the same.

To be more specific, our brains are prone to what are known as cognitive biases. These biases can essentially force us into thinking irrationally or illogically. They’re intrinsically part of our psyche, and they typically affect us subconsciously. They can have a huge impact on the way we interpret information, the way we act and the way we make decisions.

Our cognitive biases can, and do, affect many areas of our lives: sometimes in a positive way, but sometimes in a negative way. In this article we look at some of the biases that affect us when we’re betting on football. We explain how they manifest themselves in relation to our betting, and how we can try to overcome any negative effects they may have.

Desirability Bias

This is one of the most common biases that affect football bettors. Since most people who bet on football are also fans of the sport, they often have their favorite teams and players. They probably even have teams and players that they’d rather do without. This is an acceptable attitude for a football fan, but it can create problems from a betting perspective.

In the context of betting, desirability bias refers to our tendency to bet on what we WANT to happen. It’s basically a more scientific term for “wishful thinking” or “betting with your heart and not your head.” Whether they realize it or not, most sports bettors are influenced by desirability bias at some point in their career.

Recreational bettors have nothing to worry about. They aren’t overly concerned about whether or not they win or lose anyways, since they bet mostly for the entertainment. They want to win, of course, but they don’t mind losing as long as they’re having fun. And, for many of them, their idea of fun is simply to put a few bucks down on their favorite team each week. Every time their team loses, they have to deal with the fact that they are also losing money. On the other hand, every time their team wins, they are rewarded with some extra cash in their pockets.

Desirability bias IS an issue for serious bettors though. When our goal is to make money, we can’t really afford to let our hearts rule our heads. This will almost certainly cost us money in the long run, as we won’t be making rational decisions. Thankfully, there’s a relatively easy way for us to prevent the negative effects of desirability bias.

Avoid betting on games involving our favorite team(s).

This is a very simple solution, but it’s an effective one. It does mean missing out on a few betting opportunities, but that’s a small price to pay if it saves us money. Anyway, there are plenty of other football games to bet on. It shouldn’t be too difficult to avoid games that involve our favorite teams. It’s also advisable to avoid any teams that we particularly dislike too.

Of course, it’s not necessary to take this fairly drastic step when we’re confident that we can make rational decisions even when we’re emotionally invested in the outcome. We just have to make sure that we’re always aware of the potential for desirability bias. We must also be careful that we don’t overcompensate by always looking to bet AGAINST our favorite teams. This can be just as costly.

Loss Aversion

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to hear that people hate to lose. What might surprise you though is the fact that people hate to lose significantly more than they enjoy winning. This can backed up by numerous studies. It basically means that our brains are wired in such a way that the negative feelings we get from losing something are far stronger than the positive feelings we get from gaining something.

Our negative feelings towards losing are so strong that loss aversion becomes inevitable. Instinctively, we always try to avoid a loss, and that affects our ability to make sound decisions. In theory it prevents us from being reckless, but it can also lead to us making bad decisions.

Most electrical items come with a standard warranty that covers breakdown or failure in the first year or two. When buying these items, we usually have the option to purchase an extended warranty. These extended warranties rarely provide true value for our money, but many of us purchase them anyway. That’s a prime example of loss aversion at play. We’re so “scared” of losing the item (i.e. when it stops working) that we’re prepared to pay higher odds than necessary to prevent that loss.

Buying an extended warranty at an inflated price won’t cause too much damage. However, it serves to highlight the fact that loss aversion can actually COST us money. Our determination to avoid losses, whether consciously or sub-consciously, affects our ability to think rationally and make balanced decisions. We don’t properly compare the risk versus reward, but instead we just focus on what’s at risk.

This can be disastrous when we’re betting on football (or any sport for that matter), as calculating risk versus reward is EXACTLY what we should be doing. If we’re too concerned about exposing ourselves to potential losses, then we’ll never make good betting decisions.

We realize that a bettor being susceptible to loss aversion doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. After all, the purpose of betting is to risk losing in exchange for the chance of winning. If we were THAT worried about losing, we wouldn’t be betting at all would we? This isn’t necessarily true. Even people who don’t bet are prepared to accept the risk of losing for the chance of winning. (Consider the extended warranty example we explained above.) Everyone can be affected by loss aversion, just in different ways.

There are two main ways in which loss aversion can affect us when we’re betting on football.

  • A tendency to favor the “safer” option.
  • A desire to recover losses.

A tendency to favor the safer option makes perfect sense. If we’re worried about losing, then we’d naturally feel inclined to always bet on the most likely outcome. And this is exactly what a lot of bettors do. Loss aversion is one reason why so many people only ever bet on the favorite. Backing the favorite is perceived to offer the best chance of winning, and therefore minimize the risk of losing.

The problem is that backing the favorite doesn’t ALWAYS offer the best chance of winning when betting on football. The logic holds true when backing the favorite on the moneyline, but most football bettors bet on the point spread. Point spreads are designed to give each team a (theoretically) equal chance of covering. So when point spreads are involved, backing the favorite to cover requires the same amount of risk as backing the underdog to cover.

In any case, as bettors we shouldn’t be concerned with looking for the least risky option. Instead, our focus should be to identify where the value lies. This means evaluating the risk versus reward, and getting our money down when the potential reward outweighs the risk. Sometimes this will mean placing a high risk/high reward wager. Other times it will mean placing a low risk/low reward wager. The point is that we must try to ignore our natural instinct for loss aversion, and focus on finding value instead. This is something we explain more thoroughly in the article listed below.

Loss aversion doesn’t just affect how we think BEFORE making our bets. It also affects how we think afterwards. When we win, we’re obviously happy. And when we lose, we’re obviously disappointed. On top of being disappointed, our natural instinct is to try to recover our losses.

Successful football bettors tend to be extremely disciplined, so they’re able to overcome that instinct. Bettors that aren’t so disciplined, however, can act impulsively and start chasing their losses. This often leads to even more losses, and if this cycle continues to repeat itself, they can lose A LOT of money. We’re sad to report that many bettors have actually lost their entire bankroll this way. Some have even lost money that they can’t afford to lose.

Ironically, this loss is a direct result of loss aversion. By following our instinct to recover our losses, we can actually end up losing even more. So it’s vital that we overcome our instinct here, and remain disciplined at all times. We have to accept our losses and just move on. Of course, this is easier said than done. The key is to set ourselves strict rules about how much we stake and when, and then make sure we stick to them. This is the basic concept behind bankroll management, which we discuss in detail in the following article.

Confirmation Bias

We all rely on our own beliefs and opinions when betting on football. They’re ultimately what drive our betting decisions. Here are some examples.

  • At the start of the NFL season, we believe that the New England Patriots are the strongest team in the AFC. We confidently predict that they’ll win the conference.
  • There’s an upcoming game between the Buffalo Bills and the Miami Dolphins. We believe the Bills are comfortably better than the Dolphins, so they should have no problem covering the four point spread.
  • The Atlanta Falcons are just about to play the New Orleans Saints. We believe both teams have a good offense and a weak defense. We therefore expect the game to go over the posted total of 42 points.

These are all very simple examples of how our views can lead to fairly obvious predictions and expectations. Things aren’t always so clear-cut of course, but it’s important that we have faith in our views when we feel strongly about them.

On the flip side, we need to be willing to change our opinions when necessary. It’s easy to be so devoted to our opinions that we never allow anything to change them. As a result, when doing our research and analysis we have a tendency to focus only on the information and data that supports our opinion. We ignore anything that might suggest it could be wrong. This tendency is known as confirmation bias, and it can be problematic for football bettors. Part of the problem is that most bettors don’t even realize that this particular bias exists.

Like most cognitive biases, confirmation bias primarily affects our subconscious. It’s not always easy to recognize that it’s affecting us though. We instinctively pay attention to anything that reinforces our existing beliefs, while disregarding anything that challenges them. We’re not doing this deliberately; actually, most of the time we don’t even realize that we’re doing it.

How are we supposed to overcome confirmation bias then?

The simple answer is that we can’t. Not completely anyway. This is just the way our brains work. Our personal subjectivities are always going to be there, no matter how objective we try to be. Even if we collect all the necessary data and information and attempt to review it neutrally, there’s always a chance that we’ll subconsciously interpret it in the way that matches our preconceptions. So, then, what can we do? Now that we are fully aware of what confirmation bias is, we have to try our best to recognize when it’s affecting us.

We need to make a conscious effort to always take a step back before placing a wager. This will give us time to review our thought process and check that we’ve taken all the relevant factors into consideration. If we have any doubts, then it doesn’t hurt to look back over things for a second time. While this doesn’t completely eliminate the effects of confirmation, it will help to alleviate them. We should always keep the following thought in the back of our minds too.

Data should lead us to a conclusion, not the other way around.

Anchoring Effect/Focalism

The anchoring effect, or focalism, is a cognitive bias that causes us to place too much weight on the first piece of information we consider when making a decision. Once we have that piece of information, our tendency is to relate all subsequent considerations to it. Here’s a real life example of the anchoring effect in action.

We’re considering buying a new television. The model we want is typically priced at around $500 at most outlets. Before we can really think about whether we can justify spending this much money, or whether the price is good value, we find the TV on sale for $400. Because we’re “anchored” to the initial price of $500, this now seems like a bargain. This will influence our remaining thoughts, and chances are high that we’ll end up making the purchase. Had we seen the $400 price first, we may not have made the same decision.

Anchoring influences the way we make many of our decisions in day-to-day life. It can have an impact on our betting decisions too, and it can easily cause us to make decisions for the wrong reasons.

If the first thing we do when betting on a game is to look at a point spread, then anchoring has an even greater chance of affecting us. We won’t be able to look at any other factors without thinking back to the initial spread we found. This makes it nearly impossible to consider these factors independently. The size of the spread will ultimately influence our whole decision making process, and this can easily skew any conclusions we reach.

For example, let’s say we’re looking at a game where there’s a ten-point spread. When we start assessing all the factors that might affect the outcome of this game, we’ll probably start thinking about them in terms of whether the spread should be higher or lower. Or we’ll subconsciously assume that the spread is correct, and our minds will automatically interpret the relevant factors to support that idea. Either way, we’re not thinking objectively about the likely outcome and drawing our own independent conclusions.

Another example of the anchoring effect is when we look at recent results. Let’s say we’re betting on a game between the Carolina Panthers and the Houston Texans. The first thing we do is look at each team’s recent results, to get an idea of their current form. We see that the Texans were badly beaten last time out. That sticks in our mind during the rest of our research, and we can’t get away from it.

There might be some perfectly valid reasons WHY they got badly beaten, but we’re so fixated on the result that we can’t be objective about those reasons. All we can think is that the Texans must not be performing well and that they’re probably going to lose again. So we bet based entirely on that, which is not the right thing to do.

It’s very difficult to avoid getting anchored to a specific piece of information.

Anchoring is deeply rooted in the human psyche, so it’s tough to overcome even when we’re fully aware of it. As with confirmation bias, we just have to accept that it’s going to have some effect on us. Again, the best solution is simply to review our thought process before placing a wager. If we truly have overvalued the first piece of information available to us, it should become blatantly obvious.

Availability Bias

This is another cognitive bias that can affect us in many parts of our lives. It describes our tendency to give more significance to events that are the most memorable or the most recent, or those that have the biggest impact on us. We do this regardless of whether these events are actually more significant or not.

To put in another way, our brains automatically assign a greater probability to outcomes that are easier to imagine. It explains why some people are naturally scared of flying, but have no concerns about getting in a car on a daily basis. Plane crashes, and the associated fatalities, make for headline news when they happen. Car crashes, despite being far more common, typically don’t. We trick ourselves into thinking that a plane crash is more likely than a car crash, even when the opposite is true.

Another example of availability bias is something that almost all of us can relate to. Have you ever avoided eating something that made you sick, even though you were able to eat that same food dozens of times before without any problems? That one time you did get sick had a much bigger impact than all the times you didn’t, so you let that influence your future decisions regarding that food. Even though this makes absolutely no sense logically, it’s just how our human brain works sometimes.

How does this affect us when betting?

Availability bias can affect our betting in many ways. For example, it’s why a lot of people always back football teams that have won their last couple of games. Those outcomes are the most recent, so they get assigned more importance than they should. It’s also why a lot of people tend to favor the over when betting on totals. High scoring games are typically more memorable than low scoring games, so people make assumptions that they are the norm. This isn’t necessarily true, and it’s already factored into the odds and lines anyway.

Another effect of availability bias is apparent in the way many people use trends when betting on football. They overvalue recent trends without considering sample size, and without thinking carefully about whether they are genuine indicators of future events.

Here’s a prime example. Let’s say the underdog had won the Super Bowl the past three years in a row. In isolation of other factors, this information doesn’t tell us much. It may be a trend, but it’s not a trend that holds much significance. Regardless, an underdog winning the Super Bowl is a memorable event, especially when this happens three years in a row. When the next Super Bowl comes around, you can be sure that many bettors will assume that backing the underdog is the right thing to do.

The key to overcoming availability bias lies in long-term thinking and using appropriate sample sizes.

It becomes much easier to avoid the effects of availability bias if we always take a sufficient amount of data into account when making our betting decisions. When considering trends, for example, we should make sure that we only value trends that have been established over a significant period of time. When considering recent form, we should make sure that we look at all the factors that might have contributed. We need to make sure that our perceptions aren’t too heavily skewed by recent events or by events that stand out to us.

Bandwagon Effect

The bandwagon effect is a psychological tendency to make decisions based on what other people are doing or saying. It’s what causes the herd mentality that often leads to people “following the crowd” rather than thinking for themselves.

Examples of the bandwagon effect can be found in many aspects of our lives. It’s ultimately what leads to certain trends and fashions. Most of us have a fundamental desire to conform with the rest of our peers in some way, so our natural inclination is often to think and act in the same way as others.

The bandwagon effect is one of the most useful cognitive biases to understand when betting on football. First and foremost, we must avoid being affected by it ourselves. We must form our own opinions and views instead of just being swayed by others. Once we successfully do this, it’s possible to use the bandwagon effect to our advantage.

The bandwagon effect frequently impacts the odds and lines offered by bookmakers.

When bookmakers set their odds and lines, they take a number of factors into consideration. They rely mostly on their football knowledge and the research and analysis they do to decide the likely outcomes. They also try to predict how their customers are going to bet.

For example, they know that a lot of bettors feel inclined to back their favorite teams. So for a game involving an especially popular football team, such as the Green Bay Packers, they’ll expect to see a lot of action on that team. As a result, they’ll make backing that team a little less attractive. They’ll reduce the odds on the Packers a little, or move the spread as necessary. They know that most people will still choose to place their bets even after these adjustments.

Invariably, the bookmakers will still end up taking a lot of money on the Packers. That means they’ll have to make even more adjustments. They’ll make the odds even lower, and move the spread even further. A lot of recreational bettors understand the betting markets well enough to understand that when the odds and lines move like this it means a lot of people are backing the Packers. The bandwagon effect will then come into play, and they’ll often back the Packers themselves simply because that’s what so many other people are doing. This can then lead to even MORE adjustments in the odds and lines.

When this happens (and it happens a lot), it can automatically create value on the other side of the market. The odds and lines have moved so far that the right thing to do is to back the underdog. This is known as the contrarian strategy, or fading the public. It’s something we explain in more detail in the following article.

More Psychological Considerations

There are a few more cognitive biases that you should try to understand too. We’ve listed these below, and then briefly explained each one. Although these aren’t as significant as the ones that we’ve covered so far, they still have the potential to affect your betting decisions. It definitely pays to be aware of them.

  • Probability Neglect
  • Hindsight Bias
  • Outcome Bias

Probability Neglect

Probability neglect is the natural tendency to ignore probability when facing uncertainty. Football bettors are ALWAYS facing uncertainty, as football is an unpredictable sport and we can never know exactly what’s going to happen in a game or over the course of the season. It’s vital that we don’t fall into the trap of probability neglect though, as each and every one of our betting decisions should ultimately be guided by probability.

This bias is actually relatively easy to overcome. It’s just a matter of being disciplined, and making sure that we don’t ever place wagers without first considering all the relevant probabilities. Through practice, we need to train our brains so that we instinctively consider probability.

Hindsight Bias

Hindsight bias describes our inclination to believe that something was predictable AFTER the event, even when there was no real basis for that being the case. For example, we might look back at a game where the underdog has won and think that we really should have seen that coming. We had, however, thoroughly analyzed the game beforehand and were completely confident that the favorite was going to win.

This particular bias can be a problem if we allow it to our cloud our judgement and start second-guessing our decisions. It can lead to us adjusting our strategies or changing our thought processes when there’s no real need to. Often times, things only seem obvious after the event because we actually know the outcome by that point. It doesn’t automatically mean that our original predictions weren’t rational and well thought out.

Outcome Bias

Outcome bias is similar to hindsight bias in some ways, as it’s also related to looking back at past events. However, hindsight bias is a form of memory distortion whereas outcome bias describes our tendency to overvalue an outcome rather than what actually caused that outcome.

A prime example of outcome bias “in action” is when we look at the past form of football teams. We’re naturally inclined to focus on their results, rather than their performances in games. If we see that a team has won its last couple of games, we tend to instinctively assume that they’ve been playing well. As bettors, we don’t really want to be making those assumptions. We have to dig a little deeper. A team may have won those games due to luck, not based on exceptional performance.

Another example of outcome bias from a betting perspective is when we consider our own betting results. Again, we generally focus on the results themselves rather than what caused them. So we could easily assume that our strategies are excellent if we’ve been winning our bets, when the reality is we’ve actually just been pretty lucky. Conversely, we could assume that our strategies are useless when in fact we’ve just had a little bad luck.

This highlights why it’s so important to analyze our betting records in detail. We don’t benefit from simply looking at whether we have lost or won, but instead we need to wonder WHY.

Some Final Points

The human brain is incredibly powerful and complex. There are some aspects to it that we fully understand, but there are also some aspects that we don’t. Although we’re theoretically in “control” of our own minds, and able to make decisions in any we choose, there are certain natural tendencies that will always influence us. Subconscious or not, these tendencies have a lasting impact on the decisions that we make.

Need some convincing about just how capable your brain is of distorting information? Just take a look at the image below.

An optical illusion that demonstrates how our mind plays tricks on us.

Which of the two lines in this image looks the longest to you? The bottom one right? Wrong! They’re both exactly the same length. This is a classic example of how your mind can basically play tricks on you.

Now, this well-known optical illusion has nothing to do with betting on football or the strategy involved, but it does help illustrate the point that we’re trying to make. We are not perfect; our brains our not perfect. They can easily cause us to misinterpret information and make decisions that don’t always make a lot of sense.

This basic point here IS relevant to football betting strategy. Above all else, successful football betting requires an ability to think objectively and make rational decisions. The cognitive biases that we’ve described in this article can prevent us from doing just that. It’s crucial that we are fully aware of them and their effects, and that we do our best to overcome them. This is, unfortunately, far from easy. The information and advice that we’ve offered should certainly help though.

Before we conclude this article, we should point that these cognitive biases aren’t the only aspects of psychology that can affect you when betting on football. There’s also a whole range of emotions that can cause you to think or act in ways that hinder your ability to achieve your goals. If you want the best possible chance of betting success, you must also learn to handle these emotions. This is something we cover extensively in the following article from our main sports betting guide.

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