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July 31, 2015

When it comes to gambling, there are plenty of statistics on almost everything under the sun, but we’re here today to tackle one of the more contentious, and less talked about questions that everyone has asked at least once in their life: “Are women better than men at gambling?”

No matter what side of the argument you come out on, it’s an extremely interesting debate. Not only has science shown that there are plenty of differences between the way men and women think about gambling as an activity, but there has been plenty of bad science that has tried to ‘prove’ the link between one gender’s ability to gamble using inference. We’re going to dispel with all of that and get down to the facts, answering the age old question: Which sex is better at gambling?

Who Gambles More?

Image Via Flickr User Zdenko Zivkovic

One of the most common arguments used when this topic is brought up in a discussion is the idea that men tend to gamble more, so they must have a better chance of winning on average given their greater familiarity with the games that they are playing. This makes sense generally, since most skill activities become easier over time, but this argument has one fatal flaw when it comes to gambling – while casino gaming is much more heavily male dominated, online gaming is almost a 50/50 split, with some female-only casinos opening up online to cater to this increased feminine clientele, meaning that there is a fairly high familiarity with gambling in either camp.

What makes it even harder to use this analogy is the fact that women and men tend to play different games as well, especially when it comes to more aggressive games (like those played against other players or against a dealer), which are still generally male dominated. Less aggressive games, namely slots, enjoy a much higher female player pool. This is a huge factor, and it leads us to our next point.

Brain Chemistry: Or Why We Gamble In The First Place

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The biggest problem when it comes to the great ‘better gambler’ debate is the fact that women and men tend to think differently about gambling, which comes down to questions of how their brains process the information, joy, and frustration that comes from actually sitting down and gambling. Not only do men and women think differently about gambling, they actually end up going to a casino (or going online) to gamble for different reasons. This is directly tied to differences in how the brain processes gambling in men and women. According to the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT) study, men tended to do better on the first set of gambling tasks they were given, and on top of that showed a higher rate of learning how to improve when they repeated the task in a second trial. This was directly tied to their brain activity as well, where men showed a much better ability to utilize the Orbitofrontal cortex (the part of the brain that directly affects decision making) over the women who were given the same test.

While this test would lead you to immediately believe that men are the best gamblers, it isn’t that clear cut. While the IGT study specifically looked at men versus women on a task that was created as to be closely related to gambling, a Harvard study came out recently which focused on real life gambling in over 40 thousand people and it tells a different story. What they learned was that women were actually much better at some types of betting, one specific instance being sports betting, with a 15% greater win-rate on average. The difficult factor for many is that while women tend to be better, on average, they also have less interest in sports betting so there are fewer women taking advantage of that edge.

One key factor that muddies the waters in these studies is the fact that people (and as it turns out genders) will gamble for different reasons. Men tend to be looking to win money, leading to a higher level of risk taking (gambling is also positively correlated with testosterone) when they are gambling. Women, on the other hand, still want to win money but look more as gambling as a release from their day to day lives and any stress that they are feeling. Their brain is rewarding them every time they go and gamble, just for being there, while men are trying to experience the ‘thrill of the chase’, that reward they get when they win big at a game. It may seem strange for a guy to look at women who are only interested in playing ‘a few spins’ at slots and then going to the bar, but for them it’s much more of a way to get out and be social rather than to win a huge amount of money, and at that they’ve succeeded.

Interestingly, this means that most conversations will end in a tie, as women might be the better decision makers and win out on average, but they end up not really being interested in playing those games where they have an edge, instead they end up moving toward more entertainment and socially-oriented games like slots. This is borne out in a broader study from Debi LaPlante at Harvard, who looked at problem gamblers by gender to see if she could come up with a few details to add to the conversation about how gamblers differ in their focus. Out of the 12 games that she looked at, the ones that women disproportionately spent time on over men were bingo and slots, both games that are generally played with friends or as a group.

Why It’s Different For Women Online

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In the first section, you realized that casinos are a terrible representation of the ‘average’ gambler, as most women tend to go online and far fewer go to the casino. In the second section, you learned that women tend to see gambling as more of an entertainment option (like going to the movies) and about socializing, rather than about the actual money being won or lost. This is even true when they have a statistical edge in a particular gambling type; instead of following through and exploiting it, they end up gravitating toward the more enjoyable (albeit less profitable) options. The biggest question is though, is it different for women online? Again, the answer has to do more with how the genders are using gambling than where they are doing it.

For women, the idea of gambling online is incredibly appealing. When they have the ability to log on for a few minutes (or hours) and blow off some steam by doing some gambling online, they get all of the entertainment of going to a casino without actually taking a trip anywhere. Men, on the other hand, tend to focus on going to a casino for a purpose (to win money), meaning that they are more likely to spend large chunks of time at the casino, so a trip doesn’t add much to their overall time commitment.

Additionally, the idea of winning money can translate much more easily when you actually get to see a payout in actual currency at the end of a big night. This shows in the details as well, with more women spending many small chunks of time gambling (due to the high percentage of female players online) while men will end up spending fewer, larger chunks of time gambling, and often at casinos.

The other interesting aspect that draws women to online gambling is the fact that the always-on, low-stakes nature of an online casino means that they can take their first steps into gaming in an environment that allows for small bets, making it a much lower risk proposition for those women who don’t fully understand the rules right away.

On top of the lower stakes, having the anonymity of a username instead of using your own name or face means that any upsides and downsides of being a particular gender are eliminated. This can be a major benefit to women especially, as the downsides of trying to break into a largely male gambling contingent in an offline casino can be daunting. Given the huge growth in female gamblers (a vast majority of which are online) over the past few years, these trends seem poised to continue into the future.

So Who’s The Best When It Comes To Gambling?

While our answer might frustrate a few people reading this, the truth is that both genders are equally good at gambling, since they are doing it for different reasons. Men tend to want the money, while women want more of the social and entertainment value of gaming (and it probably doesn’t hurt that they can drag their male friends along with them). This is one of the few situations that you’ll find where both sides can honestly say that they win.

The most important thing is that both men and women can also learn something about each other from this article. Men, it’s fun to win big, but looking at gambling also as a way to just blow off some steam and enjoy some time away from the rest of your life can make those big wins even better and those tough losses hurt a little less. Women, you can learn no matter how much joy you get out of just playing the game, knowing how to strategize and figure out the systems to help you win more often can improve your entertainment value (by giving you more playing time with the same investment), and it can even result in a big, potentially life-changing win