Psychology Corner: Gambler’s Fallacy

This is Psychology Corner, where Tom brings in his knowledge from his professional life to bear in analysing the psychology and behaviour of Fantasy Football (FPL) managers. I initially wrote a lot of these back in 2017, but they’ve been retrofitted with new examples and finessed to better suit today’s context.

Please note these articles aren’t claiming to explain everything that is going on, but are suggesting a psychological factor (or two) that could be influencing behaviour

Imagine flipping a coin.

It comes up tails three times.

What do you think happens on the next flip?

Of course, you probably know that the prior three results don’t impact the fourth.

But I suspect that if I asked 100 random people to put a bet on what would happen next, the majority would say “heads”.

This is called Gambler’s Fallacy in behavioural science.

What’s the background?

To define terms, a fallacy is simply a mistaken belief based on subjective evidence.

The ‘gambler’ part comes from the mind’s preference to see patterns.

People tend to see certain streaks of events as being non-random when, in fact, they are.

This comes from the assumption that gambling (which FPL ultimately is) is an inherently “fair” process that will eventually “even itself out” in the end.

Specifically, this is about the misconception that if something isn’t happening more than a perceived norm, it will eventually “even out” and things will “revert to the norm” (and vice versa if it is happening more).

As with the availability heuristic, this is rooted in the fact that what we perceive is based on salient experiences, making our beliefs invariably subjective.

We are more likely to base our views on what we have personally seen or heard rather than on objective data.

Is FPL random?

Of course, coin flipping and FPL are slightly different beasts.

Coin flipping is totally random.

In FPL, while although there is undoubtedly a degree of randomness inherent to it, it is also possible to be consistently good at the game which is where the “skill” of the manager comes in.

However, you can’t discount the random factor completely; think an early red card or injury, a random player like Cardiff’s Nathaniel Mendez-Laing winning top player in a Gameweek (he won Gameweek 38 in 2018/19 with a 16 point return versus Man Utd).

I could write an essay on this, but you get the gist: of course it’s not perfectly random, as it is with coin flipping, as there are multiple moderating factors such as good old fixtures and form.

However, it’s safe to say randomness does play a role in FPL.

Like gambling generally, it’s not an inherently “fair” game: FPL proves time and again to be a cruel mistress. I’m sure the many times when you’ve gotten unlucky (random own goal, missed pen, 59th minute sub) should come to mind here as salient examples.

FPL example

I’ll give an example from our current situation.

Teemu Pukki.

The slippery Finn, whom we profiled in Prospecting The Prospects here, has made a revelatory start to the FPL season. His 35 points via 5 goals and 1 assist in just 3 games have seen his ownership skyrocket from a mere ~3% in Gameweek 1 to almost 35% at the time of writing.

Pukki, and manager’s reaction to his bandwagon, is a great example of Gambler’s Fallacy . Andy Martin sums this up perfectly:

People will be seeing the returns, and some will be resisting the bandwagon saying things like “he’s due a blank” or “I don’t think he’s got the fixtures”.

This is fair enough on one level, however it is informed by Gambler’s Fallacy – an underlying belief that he is “overperforming” and will therefore “level out” in his output.

I’ve learnt the hard way (through avoiding players like Raul Jimenez, or refusing to captain Mo Salah in his emergent season) that Gambler’s Fallacy is often a hindrance rather than a help to your FPL team.

It’s all well and good being right for the one game – but, as those who resisted the bandwagon citing fixtures saw vs Chelsea when Pukki bagged a goal and assist, the punishment is often not worth the contrarian high ground in terms of your FPL rank.

(Caveat: of course it’s about balance, and all bandwagons should be viewed on a case-by-case basis. I am highlighting Pukki as a current example, but this may not be true for others. If you’re about to fly on to twitter to @ me, please first engage brain and think about applying the concept rather than the individual example)


So anyway, next time you’re thinking of not doing something, or indeed thinking of doing it, framing your justification along that line of everything “evening itself out eventually”, I’d stop and think about it.

Think about what you’re potentially missing out on from your action, or lack thereof, and try use objective data in conjunction with your own opinion.

This will help evaluate whether your decision making is sound, or whether it’s gambler’s fallacy blinkering your thinking.

(caveat: these articles condense often complex concepts into bitesize chunks – there is obviously far more depth and detail to each concept, with reams of academic and practical theory around both that can’t be fully represented here.)