While the majority of people can gamble recreationally and experience no harmful consequences, psychologists are interested in what makes others continue gambling when it stops being fun.
This blog outlines the psychology behind problem gambling and how it’s widely acknowledged as a mental health issue that requires specialist treatment.
What is gambling addiction?
Gambling addiction – also known as pathological gambling, problem gambling and gambling disorder – affects people of all ages and from all walks of life. It can have far-reaching psychological, social, personal, professional, financial and legal repercussions.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5) has recognized gambling as a behavioral addiction. This reflects research that shows the reasons why people engage in gambling are similar to substance use disorders – sufferers crave gambling in the way other people crave alcohol, cigarettes or drugs. The DSM-5 classification is based on nine criteria and requires a person to have displayed four or more symptoms during the last 12 months. Several of the criteria are based on the traditional addiction model for substance use disorders – relating to tolerance, withdrawal and difficulty controlling urges. While other criteria relate to preoccupation, chasing losses and the harms associated with problem gambling. Financial harm from gambling is also important to consider.
Prevalence of gambling in the US
The US gambling landscape has changed considerably over the last few years as opportunities for gambling have expanded with the explosion of sports betting after legislation was relaxed. New technologies have also made gambling increasingly accessible. Here are some key gambling statistics and predictions:
- 85% of American adults have gambled at least once in their lifetime – with 80% having done so in the last year.
- 1-3% of the adult US population, or over 5.1 million people, experience a gambling problem every year.
- The average adult lost US$421 dollars gambling in the US in 2017.
- The US online gambling industry is growing at an annual rate of 11.6% and could be worth US$93 billion by 2023.
- Sports betting revenue in the US increased from US$431 million in 2018 to US$1,550 million in 2021 and much of this was generated by online sports betting.
Psychology and the gambling brain
Why do some people feel compelled to gamble when the odds are stacked against them? Advances in brain imaging techniques are providing some answers. Scientists in Cambridge have used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure patterns of brain activity while volunteers participated in a gambling game. They investigated how gamblers over-estimate their chances of winning, including the effects of near-misses and personal choice – hooks that are intentionally hidden in game design to make gambling more compelling. These hooks give an illusion of control so the gambler thinks that skill is involved, whereas the outcome is completely random. By studying the psychology of gambling and the breakdown of self-control in gamblers, this research has important implications for the future treatment of gambling disorder.
Read More: The Psychology of Sports Betting
5 ways psychology can affect gambling behavior
The bandwagon effect
The bandwagon effect occurs when a person is influenced by the gambling behavior of others. They don’t use their own judgement but follow the crowd – often wrongly assuming that other people must have better knowledge or expertise. This can result in gamblers making knee-jerk and ill-informed decisions.
A positive mood can encourage gambling
Research has found that a positive mood can affect a person’s tendency to gamble – for example when a sports team performs better than expected or the weather is sunnier than anticipated. The explanation is that a positive mood leads to increased risk taking.
Read More: The Dangers of Sports Betting
Gambler’s fallacy – also known as the Monte Carlo fallacy
This well-known psychological process occurs when a gambler believes that a certain random occurrence is less likely or more likely to happen based on the outcome of a previous occurrence. In reality, the odds of any particular occurrence taking place is always the same.
Gambling systems and strategies
Although gambling is a random event, many gamblers believe they can devise a winning system or strategy. This may include betting the opposite way of recent outcomes, attempting to predict patterns in random numbers or performing ritualistic behavior before placing a bet. However, in the long run no betting system can withstand the test of time.
Research has shown that repeated exposure to gambling can change how players respond to losing. For problem gamblers, losing money can trigger a release of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter, almost to the same extent as winning. Consequently, losing drives them to continue gambling – this is known as chasing losses.
What are the signs and symptoms of a gambling problem?
Gambling addiction is often hidden, and friends, family and colleagues only become aware of it when the gambler becomes unable to function without gambling. If you suspect that you (or someone you care about) may have a problem, here are some warning signs of a gambling problem:
- Needing to gamble increasing amounts of money to experience the same euphoria
- Feeling restless or irritable when trying to cut down or stop gambling
- Making repeated attempts to control, cut back or stop gambling, without success
- Constantly thinking about gambling
- Gambling when feeling unhappy and distressed
- Chasing losses to get even after losing money gambling
- Lying about gambling activity
- Putting a relationship, job, or educational or career opportunity at risk due to gambling
- Asking others for money to pay off debts and/or gamble more.
Research shows that people with gambling problems often experience co-existing issues such as depression, anxiety and substance use disorders. At Kindbridge, we believe that treating gambling addiction involves supporting your overall mental health and well-being as well as dealing with the gambling problem.
Risks of gambling
Gambling addiction can have a devastating effect on individuals and their families. The inability to stop gambling can lead to financial hardship, relationship breakdown, employment issues, criminal acts, and physical and mental health problems. Lying becomes a way of life for the gambler, to the point they start to believe their own lies.
Some people recognize their behavior is spiraling out of control and admit they need help to stop gambling. Others will try to hide their addiction and carry on gambling. In extreme cases, people can end up in prison or attempt suicide.
How to get help for a gambling problem
If you recognize the signs and symptoms of gambling in yourself, or a loved one, you don’t have to struggle alone.
At Kindbridge, we understand that acknowledging you have a gambling problem and seeking professional help can be daunting, especially if you’ve never had therapy before.
Whether you want to cut down or stop gambling, we can work with you to make sustainable long-term goals. We will match you with a fully-licensed therapist who will help you develop healthier habits and regain control of your life.
Take our online gambling disorder test to understand how gambling is impacting your life.
Then get in touch to book a free and confidential 30-minute consultation.