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Glass Half Full? How to Overcome Optimism Bias in Football

28th February 2019 / Julian
Betting Advice

‘Always look on the bright side of life,’ sang the cast of Monty Python, and in truth seeing the best in everything and everyone is a fantastic way to live your life. However, it can have its downsides….and none more so than when placing your bets.

There is a theory known as Optimism Bias – and it’s even had academic studies carried out into it – that suggests that some punters are slightly blinkered when betting on certain teams or outcomes, and often their selections are dictated by it. Also, optimism can be translated – in some cases – as over-confidence; an absolute no-no for bettors.

It is caused, broadly, by the irrationality of the human mind, but the good news is that we don’t have to simply accept our fate: we can control our cognitive biases by recognising when we’re about to be afflicted, i.e. when pen hovers over betslip and when finger flickers over the ‘place bet’ button on our mobile phones.

So what is Optimism Bias?


Have you ever felt invincible in the past….like you can do no wrong? Welcome, friend, to optimism bias: the feeling that you are less at risk of experiencing a negative event than others.

For example, you might think that when you travel by airplane that there is no chance of the aircraft crashing. A pretty gruesome thought, but for many the idea of their mode of transport ‘failing’ doesn’t even cross their mind. Odds of one in a million are good enough for most to ignore.

This applies to betting too: certain punters simply believe they have a greater chance of winning than anybody else. This can manifest itself in fearless, reckless and often brain-less betting.

This also manifests itself in another way that is just as affecting. It is optimism bias that drives individuals on when they complete repetitive actions. So, the lottery fanatic that buys a ticket each and every week in the off chance they will win – but less than 1% of the world’s population is a lottery winner. For example, the UK lottery was founded in November 1994. If you purchased a £1 ticket every week, you’d have spent in the region of £1100 by now. How many of us see a return on that? It is optimism bias that drives us to the shops each week.

The same is true of football punters in the regularity with which they bet, the nature of their wagers (chasing losses is a classic activity of cognitive bias) and their optimism towards certain teams or outcomes – usually the one they support.

The Science Bit


The science behind optimism bias is simple: the human brain simply does not recognise potential outcomes with miniscule odds. Many of us drive to work each day, but do we recognise the chances of being involved in a fatal accident? Of course we do, but our need to get to our jobs on time is more pressing than the chance of us becoming involved in a crash.

Bungee jumping and sky diving are two other forms of optimism bias; the rope won’t snap and the parachute WILL open when you jump, won’t it?

Daniel Kahneman, the noted psychologist, carried out a fascinating experiment that highlighted the notion of optimism bias perfectly. A group of tourists were offered two different insurance packages before they travelled: one policy that covered for death caused by a terrorist attack (at a higher premium), and one that covered for death caused in any way. Incredibly, most of the travellers were willing to protect themselves against terrorism, and at a higher price too – optimism bias incarnate.

There are three main areas of the mind that govern optimism bias:

Self-Enhancement – positive outcomes – in life or in betting – are linked to the notion of self enhancement. It feels good to win. Those kinds of emotional response tend to overpower rationality in the minds of punters.

Self-Presentation – for many people, sports betting is a social pastime; we love telling our friends about the bets we’ve made and the reasons for our selections. This ‘self presentation’ is a classic symptom of cognitive bias, and it’s natural to want to present ourselves in the best possible light as a punter. This too can have an impact upon the sensibility of our wagering.

Personal Control – studies have found that people are more optimistically biased when they are the control factor in an event. So an individual believes they are less likely to be in a car crash when they are the driver rather than the passenger. Of course, the individual in question has complete control over their wagers too; and thus optimism bias goes through the window.

How to Identify Optimism Bias – and Combat It

By its very nature optimism bias is an unconscious mindset that exists beyond our comprehension. But there are ways to control it using a series of techniques just prior to clicking ‘Place Bet’ on your phone or handing your betslip to the cashier.

Understanding the Success/Failure Paradigm

Every time you place a football bet on a win-lose-draw market, your theoretical chances of winning are 33% (we can minimise our risk by betting on favourites playing at home etc). Every time you add another leg to a multiple, your chances of success decrease.

It’s all well and good saying ‘so-and-so should win easily….’ (classic optimism bias), but football and sport in general is so beloved due to its unpredictability. Recognising the risk element attached to betting will help to dampen your bias.

Manage Risk

This is the basic success tactic for sports betting anyway, but if you are afflicted by optimism bias then it takes on added importance.

Managing risk requires a number of skills: understanding success ratios, studying form/head-to-heads, making sure injuries and suspensions are taken into consideration….basically anything that ensures that the implied risk of your bet is managed.

Listen to your Inner Voice

Even the most optimistic of us has that little voice inside us that says ‘is this right?’, ‘am I truly confident in this bet?’, ‘you’re doing it again’ etc. Often, it is worth giving this voice a second listen, as simply being in-tune with your cognitive bias is enough to question your selections long enough to make a more informed decision.

Remember, being naturally optimistic is a fantastic character trait and one you’re lucky to have. If you can recognise where it has the potential to get you into trouble, it can help make a difference to your life….and your betting.

The tip is based on the personal opinion of the author. No success is guaranteed. Please gamble responsibly. 18+

* All mentioned odds were valid at the time of writing. Betting odds are subject to fluctuations. Please check the current odds with the respective bookmaker!

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