Fun by definition, gambling unfortunately is capable of sparking serious harmful behaviours. A paradox in its own right, the nature of gambling prompts questions like Why do some people enjoy gambling as a form of entertainment while others don't seem to be able to stop? or How can one explain the desire to gamble, and why doesn't everyone experience it?
To answer these and many other frequently asked gambling-related questions, we will take a deeper look into the psychology of gambling and the psychology of gambling addiction.
Why Do People Gamble?
At its core, gambling is a paradoxical behaviour as most of us know that "the house always wins." Pulling levers on a slot machine or placing your bets at the roulette table, doesn't matter; at all times, the odds are meticulously calculated to ensure that the casino makes a profit. So why do people gamble when there is every likelihood they will lose money?
Let's dive deeper into the psychology of gambling to see what drives people to start, and continue gambling, even when it harms them.
Thrill of Uncertainty
Were there no psychological reward from gambling, the casino industry would probably die off pretty quickly. Not knowing the outcome of a game is the first and most important aspect of gambling. Our brains are hardwired to find excitement in activities where the final result can't be predicted. And if there is any potential reward included, the brain is already jumping for joy and asking for more.
Let's face it: visiting a casino can serve as an escape, albeit short, from our everyday lives. The glitzy environment we see at casinos stimulates all sorts of senses, including sight and sound, making people feel like they are in another, more exciting world, full of potential rewards. Who, then, wouldn't want to visit such a place from time to time and let themselves loose?
Gambling is widely accepted as a form of socialisation, an activity in which most of the population takes part, either casually or excessively. Many young people are familiarised with gambling by their parents or friends, for example, by learning how to play card games. Be it bingo or poker, gambling can be a fun way to spend time with friends or even meet new people.
Naturally, some people are in it just for the money. Some of them are professionals, taking part in major tournaments and winning unspeakable sums of money, while others are gambling as a way to earn additional income. Playing games of skills like poker can indeed be lucrative, provided that you have mastered the skill. However, playing games of chance just for the sake of winning should not be nurtured, as these games are random at their core, and there is always a chance you will lose more than you will win.
Why Is Gambling Addictive?
It is perfectly fine to enjoy a game of chance every once in a while. The risk versus reward aspect provides a rush of excitement even if you don't win every time. It's the psychology of gambling 101, as it is in human nature to take risks, as stated by Dr Ricardo Twumasi & Prof Sukhi Shergill. It's the psychology of gambling 101. However, as is the case with various substances or experiences that make us feel alright, such as drinking alcohol, shopping, or eating, taking too much may mean a shift from an occasional source of pleasure to a mental dependence.
Gambling and the Brain
To understand the psychology of gambling addiction, it is helpful to grasp how the brain works when we participate in enjoyable activities. The thing called the brain's reward system is particularly interesting to look at when talking about gambling and the addiction that may arise from it.
The reward system is a series of circuits connecting different brain regions, with the centres for pleasure and motivation being the most relevant. Any rewarding experience, from having sex to receiving a compliment, causes the brain to activate neurotransmitters that can either depress or stimulate neurons.
Dopamine is the primary neurotransmitter responsible for transmitting this information. When our brains release enough dopamine, we get the feeling of pleasure of euphoria and are, well, inclined to engage in that activity again. So, for example, when we gamble, the dopamine levels become exceptionally high, with some studies comparing those levels with ones seen in people who are doing drugs.
When we do anything that brings pleasure excessively, it may dramatically alter the way our brain transmits messages between neurons. In gamblers who have psychological and/or genetic predispositions, this type of behaviour can pave the way for addiction.
In a nutshell: when the brain is overstimulated, it will boost its defensive mechanism to reduce the efficiency of the reward system. And this is where the problem lies: the more we gamble, the less our brains release, compelling us to increase the activity in search of the "high."
What Are the Main Causes of Gambling Addiction?
To paint a clearer picture of the psychology of gambling addiction, we must take a look at different, intersecting or overlapping causes that we roughly categorised into three groups:
Every person has a unique physiology and genetics, so each one of us is different when it comes to the degree to which we enjoy gambling as entertainment. For some, it may become too tempting and, eventually, impossible to resist. Our ability to prioritise rational thought rather than give in to impulsive desires is a function of the brain that varies greatly from one person to another. Although healthy brain chemistry motivates us to repeat behaviour that gives us pleasure, like eating or having sex, it is also responsible for developing addictions to enjoyable activities.
When it comes to biological causes of gambling addiction, there are another two factors that may contribute to developing a harmful behaviour:
- Age - Gambling addiction is more common among younger and middle-aged people, and gambling in early life may also increase the risk of developing an addiction to gambling.
- Sex - Compulsive gambling is also more common in men than in women. As a rule of thumb, women tend to develop gambling addiction later in life, although gambling patterns in both men and women are rather similar.
Even when the repetition of initially pleasurable activities becomes harmful, some people seem to continue engaging in it. This is due to anticipation of benefits derived from addiction, despite adverse effects being more prevalent.
Those benefits may include:
- Stress reduction
- Boredom relief
- Pleasurable feelings
- Coping with unwanted feelings or situations
- The mere benefit of avoiding the symptoms of withdrawal
People with generally poor coping skills are more vulnerable to developing any addiction, gambling included. Therefore, working to acquire positive coping skills is crucial for addiction treatment or prevention thereof.
Furthermore, a number of psychological disorders, like depression and anxiety, are often coupled with addiction. In the case of gambling, people may resort to it to eliminate the symptoms of these disorders.
Socio-cultural causes refer to values and beliefs that guide an individual's behaviour and his/her social interactions. For instance, casinos often try to offer a thrilling social atmosphere, where players interact and root for one another. The cultural acceptance of gambling also plays a role, compelling people to regard gambling as a usual, even desirable activity.
Finally, the family is another decisive factor. For example, a child may learn to engage in games of chance as a pastime or to relieve stress. In the long run, this type of behaviour, when coupled with other factors, may lead to addiction.
What is Compulsive Gambling?
Compulsive gambling refers to the uncontrollable urge to continue gambling despite the many adverse effects and the toll it takes on someone's life. Although many people enjoy gambling as a fun activity, for a minority of people, gambling may become a spiralling habit that they cannot control.
Pathological gambling has been a recognised psychiatric diagnosis found in approximately 1% of the population. It is a serious mental condition that can lead to negative behaviours and consequences and affect other people in the problem gambler's life.
Understanding the psychology of gambling addiction and going through treatment of pathological gambling is challenging. Still, there are numerous promising examples of people who have managed to overcome compulsive gambling through professional treatment.
To better grasp this issue, take a look at our in-depth guide to gambling addiction and how to detect and treat it early on.
Is There a Compulsive Gambler Personality?
The psychology of gambling gave us a deeper insight into what drives people to gamble, but the physiology of the brain can help us understand this issue even better.
Although there is no specific definition of compulsive gambler personality, scientific research has revealed that problem gamblers share genetic predispositions, like reward-seeking behaviours or impulsivity, with drug addicts.
These are the two main physiological features shared by these two groups:
- Underactive brain reward system
- Less activity in the prefrontal cortex
Underactive brain reward system refers to the ability to experience the level of pleasure as the average person. Individuals whose reward system of the brain is less active tend to be drawn to activities that overstimulate reward pathways.
On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex is a region of the brain that is responsible for decision-making, cognitive and impulse control. Research has shown that people who gamble compulsively, similarly to drug addicts, have less activation in this area of the brain compared to the average person.
What Are the Main Warning Signs?
Just like with any other addiction, warning signs of a developing harmful behaviour can be detected relatively early, either by the person in question or the person's friends and family. To illustrate what the person at risk of developing compulsive gambling is going through, we will categorise early signs into two groups.
These are some of the most common financial signs that a person might be developing an addiction:
- Missing money (e.g. from wallets, money jars or bank accounts)
- (Valuable) items missing from the house
- Being frequently short of money despite earning a wage
- Borrowing money more often than usual
- Owing money to several people at the same time
- Keeping financial records or payslips a secret
- Failure to pay bills
- Shortage of food at home
Apart from these most common symptoms, the person in question may also exhibit other behavioural signs:
- Becoming withdrawn from friends/family
- Being worried or restless for no apparent reason
- Being late for work, school, etc.
- Neglecting responsibilities
- Talking about feeling depressed, frustrated or having suicidal thoughts
- Changes in sleeping, eating or sexual patterns
If you or anyone close to you exhibits one of the warning signs, consider seeking treatment as the gambling addiction can be treated with more success if caught early on.
How to Develop Healthy Gambling Habits
We know gambling can be a fun way to spend time with your friends (or alone if you want to get yourself loose when no one's looking!). However, there is a line between having fun and having a problem, and the crucial step in not crossing that line is developing healthy gambling habits that will keep you on the fun side.
Here are a few tips on how to become a responsible gambler:
Don't Gamble When Under Stress
It's the simple psychology of gambling: If you are experiencing difficulties, be it emotional or financial, don't gamble. Gambling may provide a short relief from stress, but it's not a solution in the long run. In truth, it can only make the situation worse as you can get drawn deeper into financial troubles.
Don't Make Gambling Your Only Hobby
Believe it or not, addictions sometimes develop simply because we have too much time on our hands. Therefore, it is essential that you find other pleasurable activities to spend time on. This could be an artistic activity (taking photography or pottery classes, for example), sports, learning a new language, reading, gardening, etc. In fact, anything that doesn't involve wagering.
Set a Budget
This is perhaps the most crucial thing: Set a fixed budget and stick to it. Don't make it too lenient so that it takes away a substantial portion of your paycheck, but don't make it too strict either because it will force you to quit after losing only a couple of rounds. Many online casinos will let you set a daily/weekly/monthly budget, preventing you from playing the moment you exceed it.
Distribute Your Bets
Once you have set a budget, you should learn how to use it. For example, if your budget is $100 per session, it will make no sense to place $10 bets. Instead, your bets should be lower so that you don't spend everything on a couple of rounds and keep yourself entertained for a longer time.
Don't Borrow Money for Gambling
Refrain from borrowing money from your friends and family that you will spend gambling at all costs. Gambling with other people's money is a nasty habit that may easily lead down the path of addiction. Instead, stick to your budget and learn to control your money and your actions.
Control Your Emotions
To be a casual gambler and have fun gambling, you must learn to control your emotions. Keeping a tight lid on your emotions is essential as it will help you refrain from making rash decisions and costly mistakes. It will also help you manage your bankroll more effectively. If you are at any point unsure whether gambling is getting the best of you, the wise thing to do is to step away from the game and cool down.
Keep Track of Your Wins/Losses
It's up to you whether you will use a good old fashioned diary or a software app, but make sure you keep track of your results. This will help you learn how effective you are in using your budget and where you stand at all times. Also, keeping track of both wins and losses will let you detect patterns in your gambling behaviour and decide whether to make some changes.
Finally, if you feel like you're spiralling out of control, seek help. Your family, friends and mental health specialist should all be in the loop so that you get as much support as you need. Remember, gambling addiction can be treated, and it doesn't mean that you're a terrible person if you have trouble controlling gambling.