Fun by definition, gambling is unfortunately capable of causing serious harmful behavior. A paradox in itself, the nature of the game raises questions such as Why do some people enjoy gambling as a form of entertainment while others do not seem to be able to stop playing? o How can the desire to gamble be explained and why does not everyone experience it? To answer these and many other frequently asked questions related to gambling, we will take an in-depth look at the psychology of gambling and the psychology of gambling addiction.
Why do people play?
In essence, gambling is a paradoxical behavior, since most of us know that “the house always wins”. Pulling the lever of a slot machine or placing your bets at the roulette table, it doesn’t matter; at all times, the odds are carefully calculated to ensure that the casino makes a profit. So why do people gamble when they are very likely to lose money?
Let’s dive into the psychology of gambling to see what drives people to engage in gambling.
The feeling of uncertainty
If there were no psychological payoff from gambling, the casino industry would probably die out 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 end result cannot be predicted. And if any potential rewards are included, the brain is already jumping for joy, asking for more!
Let’s face it: visiting a casino can serve as an escape, albeit a brief one, from our everyday lives. The dazzling atmosphere found in casinos stimulates all kinds of senses, including sight and hearing, making people feel as if they are in a more exciting other world, full of potential rewards. So who wouldn’t want to visit such a place from time to time and let go?
Gambling is widely accepted as a form of socialization, an activity in which most of the population participates, either casually or excessively. Many young people are familiar with gambling from their parents or friends, for example by learning to play cards. Whether it’s bingo or poker, gambling can be a fun way to spend time with friends or even meet new people.
Naturally, some people are in this just for the money. Some of them are professionals, participate in big tournaments and win indescribable sums of money, while others play for additional income. Playing skill games like poker can be lucrative, provided you have mastered the skill. However, playing games of chance just to win should not be encouraged as these games are random in their essence and there is always the possibility that you will lose more than you win.
Why is gambling addictive?
It is perfectly fine to indulge in a game of chance once in a while. The risk versus reward aspect provides a burst of excitement even if you don’t win every time. It is the basic psychology of the game. However, as is the case with various substances or experiences that make us feel good, such as drinking alcohol, shopping or eating, drinking too much can mean a change from an occasional source of pleasure to mental dependence .
Gambling and the brain
To understand the psychology of gambling addiction, it helps to understand how the brain works when we participate in fun activities. What is called the brain’s reward system is particularly interesting to observe when it comes to gambling and the addiction that can arise from it.
The reward system is a series of circuits that connect different brain regions, with pleasure and motivation centers being the most relevant. Any rewarding experience, from having sex to receiving a compliment, triggers the brain to activate neurotransmitters that can depress or stimulate neurons.
Dopamine is the main neurotransmitter responsible for transmitting this information. When our brain releases enough dopamine, we have the feeling of pleasure, of euphoria, and we are, well, inclined to engage in that activity again. So, for example, when we play games, dopamine levels become exceptionally high , and some studies compare those levels to those seen in people who use drugs.
When we do something that produces excess pleasure, it can drastically alter the way our brain transmits messages between neurons. In gamblers who have psychological and / or genetic predispositions, this type of behavior can lead to addiction.
Bottom line: When the brain is overstimulated, it will increase its defense mechanism to reduce the efficiency of the reward system. And here’s where the problem lies: The more we gamble, the less our brains unleash, forcing us to increase 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 look at the different causes, which intersect or overlap, which we roughly classify into three groups:
Each person has unique physiology and genetics, so each of us is different when it comes to the degree to which we enjoy gambling for entertainment. For some, it can be too tempting and eventually impossible to resist. Our ability to prioritize rational thinking rather than give in to impulsive desires is a brain function that varies greatly from person to person. Although healthy brain chemistry motivates us to repeat behaviors that bring us pleasure, such as eating or having sex, it is also responsible for the development of addictions to pleasant activities.
When it comes to biological causes of gambling addiction, there are two other factors that can contribute to the development of harmful behavior:
Age – Gambling addiction is more common among young and middle-aged people, and gambling in early life can also increase the risk of developing a gambling addiction.
Sex – Compulsive gambling is also more common in men than women. As a general rule, women tend to develop addiction to gambling later in life, although the patterns of gambling in both men and women are quite similar.
Even when the repetition of initially pleasant activities becomes harmful, some people seem to continue to do them. This is due to the anticipation of the benefits derived from addiction, even though adverse effects are more frequent.
These benefits can include:
Relief from boredom
Coping with unwanted feelings or situations
The mere benefit of avoiding withdrawal symptoms
People with poor coping skills in general are more vulnerable to developing any addiction, including gambling. Therefore, working on the acquisition of positive coping skills is essential for the treatment of addiction or its prevention.
In addition, a number of psychological disorders, such as depression and anxiety, are often accompanied by addiction. In the case of gambling, people can use it to eliminate the symptoms of these disorders.
Sociocultural causes refer to values and beliefs that guide a person’s behavior and social interactions. For example, casinos often try to offer an exciting social atmosphere, where players interact and support each other. The cultural acceptance of gambling also influences and forces people to consider it a normal and even desirable activity.
Finally, family is another deciding factor. For example, a child may learn to play games of chance as a hobby or to relieve stress. In the long run, this type of behavior, when combined with other factors, can result in addiction.
What is compulsive gambling?
Compulsive gambling refers to the uncontrollable urge to keep gambling despite the many adverse effects and the cost this has on a person’s life. Although many people enjoy gambling as a fun activity, for a minority of people, gambling can become a habit that they cannot control.
Pathological gambling is a recognized psychiatric diagnosis found in approximately 1% of the population. It is a serious mental condition that can lead to negative behaviors and consequences and affect other people in the life of the player with the problem.
Understanding the psychology of gambling addiction and going through pathological gambling treatment is not an easy task . However, there are many promising examples of people who have managed to overcome compulsive gambling through professional treatment.
To better understand this problem, check out our detailed guide on gambling addiction and how to detect and treat it early on.
Is There a Compulsive Gambling Personality?
Gambling psychology gave us a deeper insight into what drives people to gamble, but brain physiology can help us understand this problem even better.
Although there is no specific definition of compulsive gambling personality, scientific research has revealed that problem gamblers share genetic predispositions with drug addicts, such as impulsiveness or reward-seeking behaviors.
These are the two main physiological characteristics that these two groups share:
Hypoactive brain reward system
Less activity in the prefrontal cortex
The hypoactive brain reward system refers to the ability to experience the average person’s level of pleasure. People whose brain reward system is less active tend to be attracted to activities that overstimulate the brain’s 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 compulsive gamblers, similar to drug addicts, have less activation in this area of the brain compared to the average person.
What are the main red flags?
As with any other addiction, the warning signs of developing harmful behavior can be detected relatively early, either by the person in question or by their friends and family.
To illustrate what the person at risk of developing compulsive gambling is going through, we will classify the first signs into two groups.
Here are some of the more common financial signs that a person could be developing an addiction:
Lack of money (for example, wallets, piggy banks, or bank accounts)
Missing (valuable) objects in the house
Being frequently penniless despite earning a salary
Borrow money more often than usual
Owing money to multiple people at the same time
Hide financial records or pay stubs
Failure to pay bills
Food shortage at home
Aside from these more common symptoms, the person in question may also exhibit other behavioral signs:
Becoming separated from friends and family
Being worried or restless for no apparent reason
Being late for work, school, etc.
Talk about feeling depressed, frustrated, or having suicidal thoughts
Changes in eating, sleeping, or sexual patterns
If you or someone close to you shows one of the warning signs, consider seeking treatment, as gambling addiction can be more successfully treated if caught early .
How to develop healthy gaming habits
We know that gambling can be a fun way to spend time with friends (or just if you want to relax when no one is watching!). However, there is a line between having fun and having a problem, and the crucial step in not crossing that line is developing healthy gaming habits that will keep things on the fun side.
Here are some tips on how to become a smart and responsible gamer:
Don’t gamble when under stress
It’s the simple psychology of the game : if you’re having difficulties, whether emotional or financial, don’t play. Gambling can provide brief stress relief, but it is not a long-term solution. In reality, they can only make matters worse as you get deeper into financial trouble.
Don’t make gambling your only hobby
Believe it or not, addictions sometimes develop simply because we have too much free time. Therefore, it is essential that you find other enjoyable activities in which to spend time. It can be an artistic activity (taking photography or ceramics classes, for example), sports, learning a new language, reading, gardening, etc. In fact, anything that doesn’t involve gambling.
Spread your bets
Once you’ve established a budget, you should learn how to use it. For example, if your budget is $ 100 per session, it will not make sense to place bets of $ 10. Instead, your bets should be smaller so that you don’t spend everything in a couple of rounds and entertain yourself longer.
Don’t borrow money for gambling
Refrain from borrowing money from friends and family that you will spend on gambling. Gambling with other people’s money is an unpleasant habit that can easily lead to 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 grip on your emotions is essential as it will help you refrain from hasty decisions and costly mistakes. It will also help you manage your funds more efficiently. If at any point you are unsure whether the game is getting out of hand, the smartest thing to do is to walk away from the game and take a moment to calm down.
Keep track of your gains / losses
It is up to you whether you will be using a tried and tested journal or a software application, but be sure to keep track of your results. This will help you to know if you are effective at using your budget and where you are at all times. Also, keeping track of both your winnings and losses will allow you to spot patterns in your gambling behavior and decide if you want to make any changes.
Finally, if you feel like you are losing control, seek help. Your family, friends, and a mental health specialist should be in the know so that you can get all the support you need. Remember, gambling addiction can be treated and it does not mean that you are a bad person if you have trouble controlling your gambling.