The Psychology of Gambling

Gambling involves wagering something of value on a random event for the chance of winning something else of value. Though many gamblers thoroughly believe they can come up with a system to beat the odds, gambling is inherently a game of chance. Despite its lack of skill-based elements, gambling is highly addictive, and it can lead to disastrous consequences for people who struggle with addiction. Recent neuroscience (study of the brain and nervous system) research has found that gambling addiction is a real thing, not just a matter of willpower or weakness. In fact, it shares some of the same neural processes as drug addiction.

Gamblers develop a complex, interwoven philosophy based on their perspectives on luck, probability, morality, and practicality. This is why it can be difficult for gamblers to recognize their own addiction or seek help, even when they are in danger of losing everything.

But understanding how people can get hooked on gambling is a work in progress. A lot of research on the psychology of gambling has focused on problem gamblers—people who become unable to stop gambling despite the risks. But researchers are also finding that some people are predisposed to gambling behavior and don’t realize it. For example, some people may have an underactive brain reward system or be genetically predisposed to impulsivity. And some communities have a culture of gambling that makes it hard to recognize the activity as a threat.

In the past, psychiatric experts generally viewed pathological gambling as a form of impulse control disorder. In the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the APA moved pathological gambling to the section on addiction disorders. But, unlike other impulsive disorders like kleptomania or pyromania, the association has never considered pathological gambling to be a “causal” illness—that is, one that causes measurable and lasting harm.

What’s more, some studies have found that pathological gamblers have lower than normal electrical activity in the part of their brain that helps them weigh risks and suppress instincts. In addition, they are often prone to illusions of control, and a false sense that their actions are more than just random.

Gamling can take many forms: online casinos, lottery tickets, sports betting, card games, cockfighting, and even video games. People in their early 20s are the fastest-growing group of gamblers, and some kids start gambling as early as 12. These activities can be a source of social connection and a means to earn money, but they can also be a source of psychological distress and addiction.

Getting treatment for gambling addiction is essential for anyone who has difficulty controlling their spending, thoughts, and behaviors. Psychotherapy or group support can be helpful, and a 12-step program called Gamblers Anonymous adheres to abstinence principles that can help with recovery. Some people find that medication is also useful. A few studies have shown that antidepressants can decrease the urge to gamble, and anti-anxiety drugs can help reduce anxiety.