Study: Knowing a Ton About Sports Doesn't Improve Your Bracket Odds

Pathological sports gamblers didn't fare any better at predicting the winners of a soccer tournament than laypersons with limited knowledge of the game.

Andrea Comas/Reuters

If interoffice emails are any indication, there's some kind of sports competition coming up. I've so far declined to enter the bracket pool. Seeing as how I have not watched an NCAA basketball game this year, I can't imagine my $5 buy-in going very far.

I wouldn't have expected to do well, either, in an experiment run by mental health researchers at Tel Aviv University that was designed to test how much specialized knowledge actually benefits gamblers. They invited people to place bets on second-round matches in the European soccer tournament. As in real-life gambling for this particular tournament, they attempted to predict both the winners and the final scores for each of the 16 games.

Participants included 53 pathological sports gamblers, diagnosed with an addiction by DSM standards. They had both experience and a highly specialized knowledge base, having answered 80 to 100 percent of questions about the game correctly. There were also 34 soccer fans, who shared the knowledge base (with 60 to 80 percent of correct answers) but only as a byproduct of their love for the game. Finally, there were my kind of gamblers -- 78 people who don't gamble, and who were able to answer less than 60 percent of the soccer questions correctly.

It turned out not to be the case that people who had prior knowledge of soccer above and beyond "the object is to kick the ball into the goal" fared worst. Instead, there was no significant difference between the three groups in ability to predict the winner or the final score. Even the male gamblers and the female laypersons, who the authors identify as being at the most extreme ends of their spectrum, performed equally.

The conclusion is that even sports gambling involves a lot of luck. We think we know that, yet we can somehow end up thinking we can gain an advantage anyway. The reason why mental health researchers were interested in this is because they can now present compulsive sports gamblers with scientific evidence that their "illusion of control" over outcomes is just that: an illusion. Sports gambling addicts, according to the authors, devote unhealthy amounts of time to acquiring information and live in fear of "missing a critical detail." They're victims of "magical thinking," cognitive distortions just like those that drive other gamblers' reliance on talismans or rituals.

Oh, and the two winners, who placed correct bets on ten out of 16 matches? Both were female, and hailed from the group with no understanding of the sport.

The authors caution that this doesn't mean that people with no knowledge have an advantage over everyone else (one female layperson failed to predict any scores correctly). But why not, Chris Heller, you can count me in for $5. I'll choose UNC over Villanova because my little brother is a Tar Heel. For the rest, I'll flip a coin.

"Football Gambling Three Arm-Controlled Study: Gamblers, Amateurs and Laypersons" is published in Psychopathology.