Gamling and the Brain


Gamling is the wagering of something of value on a random event, with the expectation of winning something else of value. In the modern world, this can be anything from a ticket to the next Super Bowl, to a video game console or the next iPhone. Gambling is an enormous industry, with the total amount of money legally wagered worldwide estimated at $10 trillion (though illegal gambling is thought to exceed this figure).

Several explanations for why people gamble have been proposed. Two non-mutually exclusive ones are the desire for positively reinforcing subjective excitement and arousal, or the desire for the negative reinforcement of relief from stress or unpleasant mood states. In addition, there are learned associations between particular environmental stimuli and the arousal they produce: for example, the flashing lights or chime of coins that characterise gambling venues can become conditioned cues to induce a specific emotional state.

Cognitive accounts of gambling have argued that gamblers sustain their behaviour by maintaining erroneous beliefs and cognitive distortions about the true chances of winning. Specifically, they believe that the expected value of winning is positive even though objectively the probability of success is low. These distorted cognitions can be assessed using a think-aloud procedure, in which a subject verbalises their beliefs as they engage in a period of gambling play. This approach has met with criticism, with some researchers arguing that flippant verbalizations do not necessarily reflect the conviction of a belief, and that there are only a few ways in which subjects can convey accurate cognitions about gambling (Anderson & Brown 1984).

Psychobiological explanations of gambling have focused on the influence of reward systems on impulsive behaviour. For example, one study found that pathological gamblers showed a blunted response in the brain when presented with a monetary win versus a monetary loss, suggesting that they may be motivated to gamble in order to stimulate a developmentally underactive reward system (Bowirrat & Oscar-Berman 2005).

It is important to understand how the brain circuitry associated with gamling works, so that more effective treatment can be developed. For this, it is essential to develop tasks that can capture the specific behavioural distortions that occur during gambling, and to compare problem gamblers with healthy non-gamblers in naturalistic testing conditions. In addition, it is important to investigate how the neural circuitry associated with gamling changes as gambling becomes problematic.

Regardless of the psychological or neurobiological account, it is clear that a more unified approach to understanding gambling is needed. This is particularly important given that the occurrence of a gambling problem is more common than many people realise, with up to 2 million Americans reported to be addicted to gambling. In addition, many of these individuals experience severe problems with their family and work lives. Most report putting work or other important activities on hold in order to gamble, and most have been known to lie to family members about their gambling habits. These negative consequences can have a profound impact on the health and wellbeing of the gambler, and lead to serious social and economic costs.