Delusional optimism; the best and the worst quality of many problem gamblers & how to make it work to your advantage

A feature that is often quite prominent in people with gambling addiction- is the optimism of ending up a winner even against all odds. A few years back I came across a term online called ‘Delusional optimism’ and reacted immediately as I realised this is so prevalent amongst the gamblers that I treat, and actually one of the reasons why I love treating them as well!

Being a delusional optimist can mean many things depending on the setting, but if we focus on the gambling, here is what you might come to find:

  • A bias towards memorising positive outcomes (whilst dismissing negative ones) and therefore a skewed expectation of future wins.

  • A tendency to discount negative experiences and outcomes and rationalise them with various reasons that perhaps were within your control – even if nothing about the gamble itself is actually controllable by you.   Typical examples might be ‘aaaahhh had I only decided to go for red more consistently I probably would have won in the end’ or ‘next time I definitely need to stick with one machine instead of allowing someone else to cash out what I put in’

-          An almost unshakeable belief that things will eventually work out the way you want them to; i.e. ‘I will eventually win’ . No matter how many backlashes, there is still an underlying belief that these are just temporary obstacles and if you persistently keep trying -you will actually win. 

Are there any PROS to being a Delusional Optimist?

 Having an attentional bias towards good experiences can certainly have its advantages.  When I first learnt about this interesting concept,  I watched a video clip of interview with the world renowned and extremely brilliant Daniel Kahneman, Psychologist, Behavioural Economist and Nobel prize laureate. He was talking about Delusional optimism in entrepreneurship. He highlighted that if people were to operate entirely rationally; for instance;  logically evaluating the chances of success before opening a business- no businesses would actually get off the ground. He suggested that entrepreneurs need to be a bit delusional in their optimism in order to succeed. Think of some of the greatest leaders and visionaries that have existed historically- with ideas and beliefs so great that people most likely laughed in their faces when they talked about what they were planning to do. These are stories of successes that happened against all odds! Had they sat down with pen and paper and balanced out their chances of succeeding with their visions – there is an overwhelming likelihood that they would not have felt motivated to keep it up.

There is also the sense that delusional optimism might enable people to bounce back more easily from rejections of various kinds. Think about some great authors, singers, inventors or business leaders whose histories often involve a series of ‘failures’ before a sudden turnaround to success.

Many times, their persistence also defies all logic- but in the end it has worked out pretty well for them. Put that in contrast to some of the examples below where the outcome has been less than desirable.




How come this mentality won’t work when I gamble ?

Whilst being a delusional optimist may have some major advantages, I can assure you that when it is applied to gambling this level optimism is both wasted and destructive!!  This can also be true for some entrepreneurs or business owners who persist in ignoring that their venture is actually not working in the current format and won’t stop investing emotionally or money-wise until the point of necessary liquidation. 

The difference between making this trait work for you rather than against you is  BOUNDARIES and SELF-CONTROL!!  In the case of gambling, the bottom-line remains You cannot hold on to wins, neither can you stop when you are on minus.  Therefore, the only way this can go is downhill no matter how you persist!


You can forgive yourself for dreaming big, and for believing at some point that gambling could be an activity that could make you rich, or at least eventually pay off in some way.  But the longer you keep ignoring this bottom line, that you have lost control over your gambling and cannot stop regardless of whether you win or lose, you will find it increasingly hard to forgive yourself for neglecting the reality of the outcomes that are actually in front of you.  

Even if you were not a gambler, but say a businessperson, you would be going downhill from the time you stop operating with some boundaries in place in regard to losses or lack of success. There are many businessmen/women over the years who have had a potentially great product, but regardless of their efforts, emotional and financial investments – the product just won’t sell. Without some sort of boundaries in place, liquidation is going to be a guarantee in these circumstances as well.  The part that sets the successful ones apart from the non-successful ones is that the successful ones know when to fold and staying in close connection with reality!  In gambling this equates to learning to pay attention to the actual pattern of your gambling and cut your eventually cut your losses, no matter how big they are. Continue to go with your emotional drive of winning over the bookies, and you will be in for a harsh ‘rock-bottom’.    Do you remember Hansel and Gretel in the old children’s story?  The two innocent children who were trying to escape their evil step-Mum and in their desperation to avoid further trauma and find a better life ended up getting bewildered by a candy-house in the forest that belonged to an even more evil witch that nearly ended up killing them. When we are in a state of desperation, and/or on the lookout for hope; it is not uncommon to defy all our logical reasoning and hook in straight with a fantasy; often without even stopping to reflect over the right course of action. Whilst we can survive well when we do this once or from time to time, when our fantasy becomes the destination we are often in dangerous territory!

Attaching to a projected fantasy

Think of the case of ‘blind love’ or limerence as perfect examples of when individuals can get so hooked on a projected idea of what someone else is, represents and inhabits, that they fail to see what is actually in front of them. No amount of effort, energy and persistence is going to bring around the projected fantasy. Why? Because it was based on a fantasy to start with.    I see gamblers every week attaching so hard to fantasy-based outcome; e.g., particular representations of money (‘that great house I will buy’need to pay off that debt’) or the feeling associated with a great win. Here is an example of when the delusional optimism goes to work again. Maintaining a state of optimism and attaching hard to a certain fantasy here means that  actual, reality based, negative outcomes are ignored in order to achieve alignment between belief system and behaviour. When people exist in this state of fantasy for too long, small steps of progress also typically get inflated.  One small win becomes magnified disproportionally and the losses gets downplayed. Over time the sense of continuous investment makes it harder, rather than easier, to walk away.


What can I do right now? How do we draw the line between fantasy and reality in gambling? Well, let me tell you first how NOT to tell the difference; listening to your feelings. Your feelings are not going to be your friends when it comes to creating healthy boundaries to your gambling. Your emotional brain has by now been primed to believe that the short-term buzz (or short-term escape from hell) that it is getting through the means of a gambling episode; is something genuinely positive. This could not be any further from the truth. In order to re-program, you are going to need to put mind over matter. Or to be more precise; action over emotion.

 Here are some of those action points:


·      Maintain a foot in reality; this can be done by keeping a track record of your wins and losses. I have talked about this before here and will keep promoting this technique as a way of keeping yourself accountable to the events that are indeed taking place. If you can’t be bothered to look it up; basically, a track record is just a record of your actual bets, losses and wins as a way of keeping you firmly attached to the reality of your behaviour patterns, and away from an emotional assessment of such.


·      Try and understand that the fantasy might have its own attraction to you. Being in a difficult situation in life might mean that you are twice as likely to ‘need’ a fantasy existence to cling to. For some, this habit has started way before gambling. Perhaps that time when you felt lonely as young, it was nicer and easier to exist in a fantasy where you had loads of lovely secret friends. There is no doubt that many times in the past, your fantasies may have served as a functional and harmless avoidance. If it has now taken on destructive properties, however, please recognise that it is time to step back into life and face the real facts that are happening. 



·      Find another creative way to ‘escape’ when required. I am not sure there is a term called ‘functional escapism’ but if not let’s use it anyway. From time to time we all enjoy some care-free time where problems don’t seem to exist, and we drift away mentally. Is it possible that another hobby/activity/creative interest could do this for you? One of my clients started to plan for a creative business idea that eventually lead to the hugely successful company he runs today. Another one started to do small drawings that he kept in a locked box but gave him great pleasure and escapism when making them. The choice is yours – but creative outlets are a very important part of recovery; and sadly, a frequently underestimated one!


·      Practice persistence and habit in attending to your new behaviours.  This will help your brain adjust to the new routine, and therefore away from the old routine of gambling related thoughts and behaviours. This could be done by scheduling in small blocks of time for practice every day; little and often is the key for the brain to learn well. Every time the thought of gambling presents, you respond by diverting it to your new interest but without blaming or querying yourself as to why the mind keeps going back to gambling. It does so largely because of habit at this point, and you are now trying actively to create new more constructive habits to compete with old bad ones.

·      Watch out for the nostalgia trips. Now and then, despite the best of efforts, your mind will find comfort in resorting back to ‘gambling-lala-land’ for an experience of quick bliss and avoidance. When this happens,  your mind will likely be flooded with thoughts of great wins, celebratory moments and goods that the ‘free money’ was able to get you. This is when you want to be particularly vigilant and have full understanding that the mind is now selectively blocking out the bad situations that gambling has brought upon your life. The best you can do in these situations is quickly pay attention to something else, ideally change scenery and take yourself far away from money and gambling venues.  The feelings of nostalgia will pass and you will thank yourself for not acting during this moment of heightened delusion!

In summary, your delusional optimism is fundamentally a really great traits, but one that needs a certain amount of understanding, control and boundaries need to be applied appropriately so that you can channel the positives of this trait into brilliance and allow the destruction to be a thing of the past.


Hope you enjoyed this article and good luck!

With love, Annika