The drunken gambler syndrome: Why the West never learns from its failures

The gambler’s delusion makes no objective sense (Source: Getty)

Let's call it the drunken gambler’s theorem. It’s the reason casinos in Las Vegas stay in business, no matter what the economy does. “Just one more bet: this time will be the one to do it.” Gamblers delude themselves that, rather than throwing money away, they are making investments, and they’re certain to win because of the effort and money they’ve already spent.

But such a logical error isn’t specific to the roulette table. It’s also the reason the US remained embroiled in the Vietnam and Iraq quagmires far longer than it ought to have. In fact, the totally irrational belief that, if you just keep playing a little longer, Lady Luck is bound to smile on you at some point, is the reason the West keeps making the same fundamental foreign policy blunders time and again. And realising this is critical to understanding what has gone so wrong in the world today.
Of course, the gambler’s delusion makes no objective sense; often it isn’t fortune that lets people and countries down, but immutable facts and unappealing statistics. Past actions do not necessarily affect future odds; toss a coin ten times and the chances will still be the same on the eleventh: 50/50. But there is something deep in the human psyche – since we first emerged from caves – that hopes against all reason that we will be cosmically rewarded for sticking at something, whatever the reality.
One of the hardest things for people or countries to do is to recognise when a situation will no longer give them what they want. From Churchill to a hundred romantic comedies, we’re told to never, never, never give up. However, the choices we make in our work, relationships, or personal finances sometimes yield little, or even damaging, results. But even then we can quell the inner voice telling us it’s time to give up, by insisting that we must get a return on what we’ve invested – even when that patently isn’t going to happen. Sadly, countries all too often behave like people.
The West’s atrocious record in the Middle East is where this psychological dynamic has been most obviously played out. In Afghanistan, after trumpeting he would be the President to bring the boys home from America’s longest war, Barack Obama has now hedged, signing a new accord with the Afghan government to leave a substantial number of troops on the ground, with robust rules of engagement to protect themselves. In other words, America is not really getting out.
Despite a decade of hard intellectual knocks, and an estimated $1 trillion spent on the place, Afghanistan remains as it has been since Alexander the Great, a state only in name, dominated by tribes and warlords who rarely pull in the same direction. The US forces on the ground are not sufficient to win a war with the insurgent Taliban, but are being left in country, just to show they haven’t somehow given up. Only the drunken gambler’s theorem can explain such lunacy; the US is remaining steadfast, despite all lessons to the contrary, persevering in a very bad policy.
The endless Iranian nuclear talks provide another telling example. At the beginning of the year, huge differences over the scale of Iran’s nuclear programme and the pace that sanctions would be removed – should a deal happen – were the main sticking points. Now, after a year of intense discussions, these two sticking points remain, with the canyon-sized differences failing to be crossed. But let’s keep at it for another half year, as this time it will be different if we just throw the dice one more time. Never mind the objective reasons for the enduring differences.
And has there ever been a better case of the drunken gambler syndrome than the Holy Grail of Palestinian-Israeli peace talks? Yet early in his tenure, the ever-gormless US secretary of state John Kerry – who you would think had enough to do – spent the better part of a year attempting the impossible, believing that somehow, some way, he could make the lion lay down with the lamb, and achieve a Middle East peace accord that has eluded his predecessors for two generations. Unsurprisingly, and to put it mildly, he was not successful.
Some circumstances will yield to persistence, and it can take time to distinguish between when your efforts will eventually prevail and when they’re being wasted. Betting on a given strategy to win the girl, or even to achieve peace in the Middle East, may be worth the initial risk. But you have to keep assessing your chances and evaluating your costs. Once you’ve spent your capital, be it political, fiscal or emotional, it’s time to lay down your cards and walk away from the table.
Dr John C Hulsman is senior columnist at City A.M., and president and co-founder of John C Hulsman Enterprises (, a global political risk consultancy. He is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and author most recently of Lawrence Arabia, To Begin the World Over Again. Lara Palay, MSW, is a psychotherapist who consults on clinical issues and social welfare policy. She lectures on clinical social work at Ohio State University, and is a managing partner at the Aldridge Palay Group.