A Behavioral Scientist’s Guide to (Not) Betting on the 2018 World Cup Testing

On Thursday the 2018 FIFA World Cup, a monthlong competition featuring men’s soccer teams from 32 nations, kicks off when the hosts, Russia, face Saudi Arabia. The World Cup, which happens every four years, attracts many people who would not ordinarily consider themselves soccer fans. The 2014 World Cup final, between Argentina and eventual winners Germany, was watched by over a billion people.

The World Cup is also a time when many people who do not ordinarily consider themselves gamblers decide to put a bet on. For many people, gambling can add excitement to even the most uneventful soccer games. But gambling can also lead many people to lose more than they can afford. This “betting guide” will introduce some of the key research findings that can keep your losses in check and increase your chances of coming out ahead.

#1: Don’t Bet on Your Team

One popular strategy is to bet on one’s own country (although fans from Italy and the U.S.A. cannot do so this time, because both teams failed to qualify, the first time they’ve missed the finals since 1958 and 1986, respectively). This is known as the “own team bias,” and there are two main reasons to avoid this strategy. The first reason is that bookmakers tend to account for this preference and offer unfairly low payoffs on the bettor’s own team. The second reason is due to emotional hedging. You’ll be happy if your own team wins. It makes sense to hedge your happiness under different outcomes by betting on your own team to not win. That way, you’re guaranteed to avoid the double hit of your team losing and your bet losing. If you adopt this advice, you’ll be one of the few; people really dislike betting against their own team, even when an experimenter offers them a free $5 bet.

#2: Don’t Bet on the Long Shot

The “three-way” market involving the three main outcomes of a soccer match—home win, draw, away win—is perhaps the most familiar way of betting on soccer. As I write this, the three-way odds on the opening match say that a $1 bet could return $1.28 (profit = $0.28) if Russia wins, $11 (profit = $10) if Saudi Arabia wins, or $5 (profit = $4) if the teams draw. Therefore, betting markets consider Russia the “favorite” and Saudi Arabia the “long shot.” Many naive gamblers might be attracted by the higher potential payoffs and the dramatic story of betting on the underdog, such as Saudi Arabia here.

This impulse reflects the most established sports-betting bias. As early as 1949, it was found that, in horse racing, bets on long-shot runners had much higher losses (as a percentage of the amount wagered) than did bets on favorites. While neither category of bets came out ahead in the long run after accounting for the bookmaker’s take, above-average losses on long shots is a pattern since confirmed across many sports (including soccer; see here and here). (A different pattern seems apparent in point-spread markets, where a skill adjustment is used to equalize the payoffs from betting on either team. For example, in NFL point-spread markets a bias toward betting on the favorite has been observed.)

Many naive gamblers might be attracted by the higher potential payoffs and the dramatic story of betting on the underdog.

#3: Don’t Get Sucked in by Specific Bets

Betting on a three-way long shot isn’t the only way that soccer bettors can chase high payoffs. “Accumulator” bets involve predicting all of the three-way outcomes from a number of separate soccer games. With, say, five independent games, the payoffs can rapidly scale, because the bet only pays off when all games finish as predicted. However, it’s easy to overestimate the conjunction of several events, both in life and in soccer. An alternative is to bet on more-specific outcomes, such as a bet on Russia to win 3–0, a specific player to score the first goal, or even a player to score the first goal and Russia to win 3–0. These specific gambles feature heavily in British gambling advertisingBut avoid betting on all of these additional categories of long shots. The bookmaker’s take increases with each independent game added to an accumulator. And the bookmaker’s take is much higher on specific outcome bets than for the more familiar three-way bets.

#4: It’s Easy to Forget About the Long Shots That Almost Were

Why do people continue to bet on long shots? One reason is that successful long-shot bets stick in the mind. For example, one bettor went viral after posting his successful betting slip on “Sami Khedira to score and Germany to win 7-1” in Germany’s famous 2014 World Cup semifinal victory over Brazil. (The initial bet of $20 paid out more than $40,000.) No glory, however, goes to the successful bets on the more mundane “Germany to win.”

Meanwhile, unsuccessful long shots are instantly forgotten. Please spare a moment to consider the anguish of those people who bet on “Germany to win 7-0,” only to have their hopes dashed by Oscar’s consolation goal for Brazil in the final minute of the game. And be careful: “Near-misses,” such as this, are known to motivate gamblers almost as much as winning bets, and they may be one factor why so many people continue to bet on long shots.

Please spare a moment to consider the anguish of those people who bet on “Germany to win 7-0,” only to have their hopes dashed by Oscar’s consolation goal for Brazil in the final minute of the game.

Of course gambling can be enjoyable, and enjoyment is a factor which should be considered (ideally in a rational evaluation with the betting biases discussed here). In my opinion, the standard “office pool” is the best way to enjoy a flutter on the 2018 World Cup. In an office pool each person puts in a small wager and is randomly allocated one of the 32 teams to back. The lucky person who backs the tournament winner receives the prize pool of everyone’s wager. There is no bookmaker involved, so in the long run each gambler breaks even. Random allocation protects each person from any biases introduced by free choice.

Cheering on a new team may even add some extra excitement to the tournament. Consider it a guilt-free long shot, liberated from the gambling industry’s dark nudges.


Philip Newall

Philip Newall is a postdoctoral researcher in engineering psychology at WMG, University of Warwick and a former professional poker player. He is interested in how principles of behavioral science affect the marketing of gambling and financial products.

Behavioral Scientist

This piece was published in partnership with The Behavioral Scientist, a collaboration between BSPA, ideas42 and the Center for Decision Research. The Behavioral Scientist is a non-profit online magazine that offers readers original, thought-provoking reports from the front lines of behavioral science. Visit us at behavioralscientist.org.