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What You Should Know About the Psychology of Gambling

Gambling is an extremely popular activity in the US that involves wagering money in games such as poker and bingo in the hopes of receiving a reward.

These rewards are usually monetary, with jackpots varying from less than $100 into the hundreds of thousands.

For most Americans, gambling is a relaxing activity or a way to socialize with friends.

Gambling has never been easier, with many casinos now offering their services online as well as in-person, so it comes as no surprise that the market continues to grow.

The global gambling market in the United States has grown from $220 billion in 2001 to $495 billion in 2019.

Despite the positives associated with gambling, however, it wasn’t until the mid-to-late 20th century that people started exploring the psychological impact of said activity.

In the decades since, psychologists and other medical researchers have arrived in leaps and bounds to discover the true impact of gambling on our brains.

Whether positive or negative, most people are still unaware of the science behind gambling.

In this article, we aim to provide you with the latest evidence and information about the psychology behind the behaviors associated with gambling and what happens when this activity becomes unhealthy.


How Deceit Fuels The Gambling Industry 

Psychology Of Gambling

Although many people believe gambling is based solely on the luck of the draw, casinos and similar establishments are extremely calculated in the way they operate.

Most people have probably heard the phrase ‘the house always wins’, referring to the fact that the odds are always in favor of the casino or similar establishment.

Despite knowing this, the industry uses several different psychology-based tactics to convince people that gambling is a low-risk/high reward activity.

Although these methods vary slightly depending on the establishment, one of the most common tactics is to highlight the profiles of those who win the casino jackpot.

Doing this personalizes the experience to other players and convinces them there is a higher probability of winning the jackpot themselves than is actually the case. 

As a result, people continue to make bets in the belief that it is leading them one step closer to winning the casino jackpot, a fate they may never really reach. 

Another common psychological practice used to reinforce gambling behaviors is to reward introductory players with small wins. 

By doing this, people convince themselves they are having a lucky streak or have found a way of overcoming the odds, and are thus encouraged to continue to place more bets. 

The downside to this method is that, a large number of players will never see any of the money they ‘won’ from their original bet. 

Despite this, they will continue to put more of their money into the gambling game because of their previous win, and the cycle is likely to repeat itself. 


When Pathological Gambling Was First Recognized As A Psychological Disorder

Psychology Of Gambling

It took a long time for gambling to be seen as anything other than a hobby, both by the general public and by psychology professionals themselves. 

In fact, throughout the history of gambling, overspending was simply seen as living beyond your means or being stupid and oblivious to your other commitments. 

The perception only really started to change in the 1980s, during preparations to publish the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).

For this edition, after much discussion, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) officially classed pathological gambling as an impulse-control disorder. 

This meant that pathological gambling, at least medically, was changed from a harmless hobby to an illness considered similar to other disorders, like kleptomania, pyromania, and trichotillomania. 

Essentially, this meant that psychologists believed gambling behaviors were performed in an attempt to relieve feelings of anxiety. 

To meet the criteria required for a diagnosis of pathological gambling, sufferers had to meet five or more points from the criteria outlined in the DSM IV

At the time, this was considered a breakthrough because it was one of the first times people admitted that the dangerous side to gambling could have a medical cause. 

Even though it had officially been declared a medical issue, however, many were still reluctant to believe that pathological gambling was a real thing.

Without any significant research into the true impact gambling could have on someone’s psychological wellbeing, it was difficult for people to see the validity behind this diagnosis.

Despite backlash from both the medical community and the general public alike, researchers continued to study the true impact gambling could have on our lives.

This led to further revelations that helped to convince people of the validity behind the diagnosis, and transformed the way we view gambling to this day. 


The Modern View Of The Psychology Behind Gambling Addiction 

Psychology Of Gambling

Following the first identification of pathological gambling as a psychological problem, researchers in the medical field began dedicating more time to understanding the condition. 

This led to significant debate about whether calling gambling a compulsion went far enough, with some noticing similarities between gambling addictions and more traditional addictions like heroin or cocaine addiction. 

This led to a number of studies, including a notable one from the University of Cambridge, that looked into how gambling affects the brain. 

In this study, it was found that gambling stimulates a region near the center of the brain called the striatum, otherwise known as the reward center.

As with other addictions, this part of the brain responds to reinforcers that encourage someone to repeat the behavior.

This ‘high’ may be caused by drugs for some people with addictions.  In the case of gambling addictions, however, it is thought that the temporary monetary gains are the reinforcers. 

Over time, someone with a gambling problem will start to crave the high associated with these reinforcers, creating a psychological addiction that is hard to break.

These revelations led to a new classification of pathological gambling when the DSM 5 was released. 

Now, pathological gambling has been renamed gambling disorder and was moved from the compulsion section to the addiction section. 

This increased knowledge has led to a rise in the number of people qualifying for and receiving a diagnosis.

In one study published shortly after the DSM 5 was released in 2014, it was revealed that there was a 20.4% increase in those who qualified for a diagnosis compared to the definition used in the DSM IV. 


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The Psychology Behind Why People Gamble 

Psychology Of Gambling

Another area where psychology has become more knowledgeable concerns the reasons behind why people gamble. 

Although there can be a variety of reasons behind gambling behavior, there tend to be three distinct reasons present in the vast majority of gambling addicts.


Risk Taking 

Psychology Of Gambling

Psychologists believe it’s human nature to want to take risks, something which is extremely present in the reasoning behind why people gamble. 

The main reason for this is because taking risks elicits a positive emotion as players wait in anticipation to discover whether they have won. 

As a result of this anticipation, prolonged playing will increase the adrenaline circulating around someone’s body, which creates a buzz that some refer to as a dangerous drug in and of itself. 

The adrenaline rush will begin to wear off if people don’t see monetary rewards, leading people to take bigger risks in an attempt to again feel the same effect.

It is this dangerous cycle that leaves people prone to developing addictions.


A Form Of Escapism

Psychology Of Gambling

The media plays a big role in encouraging people to engage in gambling behavior. 

By advertising gambling as glitzy and glamorous, the brain minimizes the risks involved and instead focuses on the high society illusion given off by advertisements for the casinos.

These advertisements are especially dangerous for those already experiencing stress in life because they give the illusion of positive emotions, making someone more likely to use gambling as a way to escape real life. 

The decor of in-person casino environments and the way online websites are designed, stimulate the senses and minimize negative feelings towards bad results, increasing the chances someone will return to the casino in the future.

Basically, by creating an environment that plays on the adrenaline rush you receive from a positive result in gambling, there is no doubt that people will turn towards it as a way of escaping from real life. 


To Socialize 

Psychology Of Gambling

Another common reason people turn to gambling is because it has become socially acceptable in society.

Most people first learn to gamble when their parents teach them to play card games at a young age.

As a result, most people already see gambling as quite a normalized practice, making them less likely to avoid it in future social situations.

By nature, gambling is an extremely popular social event anyway, with different games aimed towards different generations.

For older generations, for example, heading to bingo with their friends may be one of the only opportunities they have to socialize all week.

Younger generations aren’t missing out either, with horse betting and more traditional casinos offering them an opportunity to gamble while with friends.

Having a collective interest in something like gambling can make someone feel less lonely, and more like part of a community.

This perpetuates the idea that gambling can fill more holes in someone’s life and make them happier, even if the consequences in the long term aren’t quite so positive. 


Not Everyone Who Gambles Is An Addict

Some people argue that even occasional gambling eventually leads to an addiction, but this is simply not the case. 

Even though 80 percent of American adults admit to gambling at some point in their lives, the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) estimates that just 1% meet the criteria for gambling addiction each year. 

A further 2-3% experience one or more symptoms of a pathological gambler and are likely to experience problems due to their behavior. 

This means that the vast majority of Americans know their limits when it comes to gambling, and are able to disconnect when they run out of money they can afford to waste. 

However, even 3% of the population is equivalent to around 6 million people. 

This means that gambling addiction entraps many people, making the work of psychologists and other medical researchers in this field extremely important. 


Who Is Most At Risk Of Developing A Gambling Addiction 

Gambling addiction is extremely complex, which makes associating its cause extremely difficult. 

In theory, anyone can develop the addiction, but research has shown that there are some people who have a higher chance of developing said addiction than others. 

Someone considered to be a higher risk won’t necessarily develop a gambling addiction, but it is best to exercise caution, especially if you fit into one of the categories below. 



Psychology Of Gambling

Psychologists believe that those under the age of 35 are most at risk of developing a gambling addiction. 

This is because this section of the population has yet to completely develop their ability to measure risks, leading to an increased level of impulsivity and a desire to seek out new things. 

There is a second wave of increased risk when someone becomes a senior citizen.  This is attributed to a need to relieve unwanted feelings like loneliness or anxiety. 

With access to online websites, even those with poor physical health can access gambling, making it seem like a great way to meet others with similar interests.

It is during this age that cognitive impairments like dementia lead to problems with gambling and even allow addiction to take hold.

This is due to the fact that this segment of the population once again finds it hard to reasonably assess risks. 

They are also likely to struggle with making reasonable decisions when it comes to things like wagering, often leading them in financial difficulty far earlier than is experienced in other age groups. 


Mental Illness 

Psychology Of Gambling

Those who suffer from mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are also at an increased risk of developing a gambling addiction. 

This is because those with mental illnesses may turn to gambling as a form of self-medication, or as a way to bring on emotions and stop feeling numb. 

It could also be used as a distraction from unpleasant emotions or experiences. 

Those with bipolar disorder may also experience problems with gambling, but this often occurs as the result of manic periods and settles once someone is again stabilized . 

For this reason, many psychologists are hesitant to provide those with a bipolar diagnosis with a gambling addiction. 


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Family History 

Like with most other addictions, including drug and alcohol addictions, there’s a genetic component to gambling addiction.

This means that if one person in the family is exhibiting behaviors of an addiction, another person is at an increased risk of developing it, too. 

Genetics isn’t the only way one’s family can increase the risk of someone experiencing a gambling addiction; the family environment is also thought to have an effect.

If someone is exposed to gambling at a young age by receiving a scratch card for their birthday or playing card games in exchange for real money, they are more likely to report struggles with gambling in the future.

On the other hand, those who have limited exposure to gambling as a child ar3e less likely to develop an addiction. 



Psychology Of Gambling

Various studies have suggested that US veterans struggle with gambling at a much higher rate than the average population.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recently endorsed two studies that supported this thinking.

The first exclusively surveyed veterans who were receiving treatment for mental health problems and found that 32.7% had gambled in the last twelve months.

Although this in itself isn’t indicative of a gambling addiction, mental health can make it harder for people to gamble in a healthy way.

The other study they supported found that, of the 85 veterans surveyed, 5.9% met the criteria needed to qualify for a diagnosis of gambling disorder under the DSM 5. 

This is significantly higher than the 1% of the general population who qualify for the same diagnosis, as reported earlier in this article. 

These patients had a history of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), further supporting the idea that mental illness makes it harder to gamble responsibly.

Despite these statistics proving a worrying trend among U.S veterans, some believe it doesn’t go far enough to explain the problem, with many too scared to seek treatment. 

In response to studies such as these, VA organizations have started to work harder to provide gambling addiction treatment and support to those who need it. 


Signs That Someone May Be Developing A Gambling Addiction 

Like many addictions, becoming addicted to gambling isn’t something that happens overnight. This makes detecting the signs of an addiction increasingly difficult.

However, there are some common changes in behavior that signify someone may be developing a gambling addiction.

Though everyone experiences an addiction slightly differently, here are some signs from the DSM rules specifically concerning symptoms of a gambling addiction. 



Psychology Of Gambling

Preoccupation is one of the first signs of a gambling addiction and refers to a point where an individual begins to think frequently about gambling . 

This tends to be an early warning sign of problem gambling, where someone may refer to past gambling experiences, especially successes. 

They are also likely to spend more of their time thinking about how they can strategize to win more money or acquire more money to spend on their habit. 

The preoccupation can also take the form of people avoiding or canceling certain obligations and spending money meant for other purposes on gambling. 



As we’ve stated earlier in this article, a gambling addiction is extremely similar to a substance addiction due to the fact that it activates the reward center in the brain. 

Like these other addictions, eventually someone with a gambling addiction will become tolerant, meaning they will need to spend more money to achieve the sensation they became addicted to.



If someone struggling with gambling addiction suddenly stops, they may experience withdrawal symptoms. 

This doesn’t necessarily affect physical health in the same way as a substance addiction would, but it can lead to agitation or irritability.

These symptoms, though they sound minor, can be extremely distressing and may lead someone back to gambling with the belief they will never be able to give up for good.



While most Americans are able to control their gambling and accept losses, those with a gambling addiction may fall into the trap of chasing their losses.

This means that if someone loses any amount of money, they will return to gambling the next day in order to try and recoup their losses. 

This behavior is reinforced by the occasional wins they may receive, but due to their addiction, they rarely see any of the funds they accumulate in their bank account. 




When someone becomes aware of their gambling addiction or feels others may not approve of their habits, they may begin to lie to those around them. 

These lies are most commonly either about how the gambler is getting the money they are gambling, or how long they are spending on these websites. 


Loss Of Control 

Some people who notice they’re struggling with gambling may attempt to stop, but it’s very difficult to do this successfully when you have an addiction.

If someone finds themselves in a cycle of trying to stop and then starting again, it could be a sign that they have lost control over their gambling restrictions and need help to put things back into perspective. 


Risking Significant Relationships 

One of the most common signs of any addiction is the loss of relationships. It may also include difficulty or disinterest in maintaining relationships, even with close family and friends. 

This occurs when someone’s gambling addiction exceeds partial preoccupation and becomes the most important thing in their life.

As a result, people can lose jobs, drop out of education, and find themselves without their significant other. 


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One of the most obvious signs of a gambling addiction is the point where someone begins relying on others to be bailed out.

This usually occurs when someone starts to experience financial difficulties as a result of gambling.  It is a major sign that someone has completely lost control over their addiction.


How Gambling Services Are Attempting To Combat Gambling Addiction 

Psychology Of Gambling

Despite the increased psychological knowledge surrounding the damage gambling can do to individuals, there is no federal law that forces casinos and other similar establishments to intervene.

Though some individual states are working to change this, many of the decisions surrounding how to protect those at risk of developing an addiction come from the facilities themselves. 

As a result, there is increasing disparity across the industry, stemming from the conflict of maintaining business interests and the liability of protecting their clients. 

Online Casino Gems is just one website that takes this very seriously.  One of their innovative approaches is to aggregate offers for gamblers.

This essentially puts a limit on the number of offers someone receives, preventing people from becoming reliant on offers and having their habits positively reinforced.

From a psychological perspective, this is extremely important because it puts a limit on the ‘high’ experienced in the reward center of the brain and can prevent someone from developing a tolerance. 

Another innovative step used by many gambling services across the United States: allowing people to permanently ban themselves from betting websites.

This removes someone’s trigger and makes it impossible for them to gamble, forcing them to deal with the underlying issue, their addiction. 

In many places, this works by asking for your IP address to be banned or having your details permanently banned from the database.

Some in-person gambling services will also take steps to assist those showing signs of a gambling addiction by banning them from their facilities. 


Psychological Treatments For Gambling Addiction 

The last couple of decades have completely transformed the way psychologists treat those suffering from gambling addictions.

Fundamentally, this is because of the understanding that this addiction is driven by stimulating pleasure in the reward center of the brain, as opposed to being a compulsive way to reduce anxiety.

As a result, many psychologists make understanding the motives behind gambling behavior their first priority, before recommending specialist treatment. 

These treatment options come in different forms, depending on the revelations about why someone has gambled to such a serious degree.


Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is used to treat several different conditions but is shown to be especially successful for gambling addictions.

In essence, this behavioral therapy focuses on the present and the future. 

The first step involves identifying the cognitive distortions patients currently have about gambling, before working with a therapist to correct them. 

By focusing on the present and the past, it removes the guilt and shame someone associates with their addiction, helping them to move on to better balance.

It’s also about developing positive thought patterns that can be used to overcome urges and cravings towards gambling as and when they occur.


Group Therapy

Psychology Of Gambling

With gambling, group therapy is often used either by itself or alongside individual therapy and is usually something to which you can self-refer yourself.

The most popular version of this in the US is Gamblers Anonymous, which provides peer support and helps addicts recognize that they aren’t alone.

With regular meetings, group therapy can also help provide structure to those whose addictions have spiraled to the point where they have lost control in many aspects of their life.

Like Alcoholics Anonymous, some of these groups include mentors who were former addicts themselves, which helps people realize there is a way to overcome their addiction.

Ultimately, group therapy aims to help people open up about their addiction in a non-judgemental environment in order to remove shame and guilt from the situation. 

Such groups also help someone be accountable for their mistakes during addiction, using lessons from others’ experiences to rectify said mistakes. 




Psychology Of Gambling

The psychology community as a whole agrees that gambling disorder is a behavior-based addiction that is best treated with therapy.

Some people with gambling addictions will have what is often referred to as a ‘dual diagnosis’, where they will also be diagnosed with a mental illness like depression or anxiety.

If this is the case, medication may also be used as part of the treatment plan. 

In extreme cases, the condition may escalate to inpatient treatment to ensure someone is abiding by the medication side of their treatment plan during gambling addiction support. 



It’s clear to see that the past several decades have seen a significant development in the relationship between psychology and gambling. 

Before the 1980s, there was almost no mention of gambling in the world of psychology at all.

Now, almost all psychologists will have some understanding of how it affects people, thanks to the modern psychological view of gambling that reclassified the practice as an addiction as opposed to a compulsive disorder.

This reclassification provides medical researchers with more understanding regarding gambling behavior and those most at risk of developing an addiction.

As a result, psychological institutions have created a variety of successful treatments for those developing these behaviors, leading to earlier interventions that should lessen the effects of gambling addiction.

The great thing about these psychological advances is that, even though some gambling establishments refuse to educate themselves, many are doing what they can to prevent addictions.

This includes measures such as aggregating offers to limit the number of gambling appeals and allowing addicted users to ban themselves from associated websites. 

It’s important to remember that this is only the beginning when it comes to the psychological understanding of gambling on the brain.

With new information regarding such effects coming out every year, we will likely see continued improvements in the way gambling is treated by psychologists in the future.

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Marina Turea

Marina Turea works as content manager & writer for various magazines in the healthcare, entertainment and lifestyle industries.

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