What Makes Some People More Sensitive to Gambling Disorders?

Gambling involves wagering something of value on a random event with the intent to win something else of value. It is considered a type of addiction and is included in the DSM-5 as an impulse control disorder. While some people may only be mildly addicted to gambling, for others it is a serious problem that interferes with their daily lives and leads to financial problems. Researchers are working to better understand what makes some individuals more susceptible to developing gambling disorders, which could help develop new treatments.

People who gamble are usually predisposed to thrill-seeking behaviours and impulsivity, but genetic differences and brain regions involved in decision-making also play a role. People with an underactive brain reward system can have trouble processing rewards and controlling their impulses, which can make them more likely to gamble excessively or be unable to stop gambling when they are losing money. Individuals who have a history of childhood trauma or mental health problems may also be at greater risk for gambling problems. The prevalence of gambling in society means that the disorder affects people from all walks of life and is present at all socioeconomic levels. However, those with lower incomes are more likely to develop a problem. Young people, especially boys and men, are also more susceptible to gambling problems.

Unlike some other addictions, which involve drugs or alcohol, gambling is an activity that can be controlled. Those who become addicted to gambling are typically motivated by desire for excitement, but they can overcome this by learning how to manage their gambling activities and not be impulsive. They also learn to recognize the warning signs of a problem and seek help.

Many gamblers believe that they have some level of skill in gambling, despite the fact that it is a random game. This illusion of control is reinforced by the fact that a person can choose their own numbers when playing a lottery or roll the dice in a casino game, which allows them to feel like they are making decisions and exerting some degree of influence on the outcome of the event. Studies have shown that personal choice and illusion of control enhance striatal responses to winning outcomes, which may explain why some gamblers are more willing to continue to gamble after a win compared to others.

In the nineteenth century, gambling fell out of favor as many societies became more concerned with morality and social reforms. Many eastern racetracks and western casinos closed during this period as part of the temperance movement, while religious leaders urged people to avoid this sinful pastime. Authors such as Thomas Carlyle (1804-1873) and Landon Carter (1785-1855) penned warnings against gambling, while clergymen such as Henry Ward Beecher (1803-1905) described the pathology of gambling addiction as a downward spiral from pleasure to madness to crime (see Fabian 1990:55-56). As recently as 1869, a journalist wrote that gamblers were a “kind of slave” and compared them to those who work at the salt mines in Kentucky.