Causes of Gambling Addiction

Gambling is an activity that involves the risking of something of value on an event with a chance of winning something else of value. It has been found in every culture throughout history and it seems to be a natural human instinct to wager. However, for some people it can become a harmful habit that interferes with their work and family life. Gambling can also lead to debt and can cause psychological problems such as anxiety, depression and stress. It is important to realise that if you have gambling problems you should seek help and advice.

Despite its prevalence, the causes of gambling addiction are poorly understood. Research focuses on two dominant approaches: the cognitive and psychobiological accounts. Cognitive theories highlight a series of erroneous beliefs that are believed to cause gamblers to over-estimate their chances of winning. Psychobiological theories focus on the effects of gambling behaviour on brain areas associated with reward and emotion, including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and striatum, and on dopamine neurotransmission.

Problem gambling is linked to psychological and emotional states, such as impulsivity, sensation seeking and a low locus of control. These underlying motivations may be facilitated by the learnt association between gambling and rewards, and between gambling and the release of dopamine. In addition, repeated exposure to the uncertainty inherent in gambling can change the way that the brain’s reward pathways react, a process known as sensitisation, just as it does with drugs of abuse.

Physiologically, gambling is associated with physiological arousal and can increase heart rate and cortisol levels. This arousal is thought to be mediated by Pavlovian processes, and environmental cues such as flashing lights and the chimes of coins can become conditioned stimuli. Moreover, gambling is often accompanied by positive emotions, such as anticipation, excitement and relief. Hence, it is possible that the innate reward circuitry in the brain is hypersensitive to reward expectancies and this can explain why gambling is so rewarding.

Another potential explanation for the behavioural link between gambling and reward expectancies is that gambling is a form of self-medication for negative psychological and emotional states. For example, the impulsivity and sensation-seeking that characterise gambling can serve as a distraction from unpleasant mood states or negative emotions such as depression or boredom. The euphoria that is experienced during gambling can also act to relieve pain.

There are a number of other reasons why people may choose to gamble, including the belief that they can acquire the skills necessary to win. This belief is often based on the illusion of control and can result in a vicious cycle where a person continues to gamble despite having significant losses, believing that they are getting closer to a winning streak. In addition, some studies have shown that certain personality traits, such as impulsivity and sensation-seeking, are associated with pathological gambling. However, these findings should be interpreted with caution as they are based on small samples. A more robust approach to understanding the aetiology of gambling addiction would be to compare groups of pathological gamblers with non-gamblers.