The Psychological Effects of Gambling


Gambling involves placing something of value, usually money, on the outcome of an uncertain event that is not entirely under one’s control. It can also involve wagering materials that are not money (such as marbles or collectible game pieces such as pogs or Magic: The Gathering cards) or even ideas, like the value of a stock portfolio. In some cases, a person may gamble for the sake of socializing with others or as a form of entertainment.

The psychological effects of gambling are complex, but some of the more common ones include: a lack of self-control and poor impulse control; a preoccupation with betting or chasing losses; lying to family members and therapists about the extent of gambling involvement; and stealing money or property to fund gambling. There are several types of psychotherapy that can help people with problem gambling. Psychotherapy involves talking with a trained mental health professional about unhealthy emotions, thoughts and behaviors. The goal is to help a person change these unhealthy behaviors and find healthier ways of dealing with stress, unhappiness or boredom.

Problem gambling is more common in adults, but adolescents can also develop pathological gambling. Adolescents often have a harder time admitting to their problems than adults do, but they can exhibit similar symptoms: They skip school or work to gamble; lie to their parents about how much they spend on gambling; hide evidence of gambling from friends and family; and spend large amounts of money that they don’t have, especially when it’s supposed to pay for things such as food and housing.

A key part of problem gambling is the tendency to miscalculate probabilities. This is partly because of a lack of mathematical literacy, but it’s also because of a more fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of probability. ‘Probability’ is a term with many different meanings, from the recorded relative frequency of events such as the color of a roulette ball or the amount of time someone might survive on a life insurance policy to mathematical models such as Kolmogorovian and Bayesian probability. Many gamblers use their own personal, subjective perception of probability when they make bets, and this can sometimes match some of these statistical models.

Despite these conceptual difficulties, neuroimaging research has shown that the brain reward system is recruited when people play skill-oriented gambling games. This suggests that, in addition to a need for immediate rewards, these games engage the same brain systems that are activated when people practice motor skills and learn from their mistakes. However, these same brain regions appear to respond inappropriately in the context of gambling, resulting in errors such as the near-miss effect.

In addition, a number of studies have reported blunted ventral frontal cortex and striatal activation in people who gamble excessively, suggesting that these areas are involved in the processing of risk and reward information. But the findings must be treated with caution, given the small sample sizes and the difficulty of distinguishing between normal brain function and abnormal responses to gambling.