How Gambling Addiction Works

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor who assists those struggling with substance abuse, gambling, gaming, and internet addiction.

What is so appealing about regularly spending most of your paycheck at a casino or online gambling? Why do some people keep gambling, despite the increasing harm to themselves and others?

If you or a loved one suffers from gambling addiction, you may be wondering how someone’s gambling can get so out of control.

Working in problem gambling treatment and prevention, I’ve discovered some common features to help make sense of problem gambling.

How Does Gambling Addiction Work?

Gambling addiction works by hijacking the brain’s learning mechanism through random rewards.

This means you feel rewarded often enough to keep going, despite increasing losses. The idea of missing a potential win keeps the person focused on trying to get the money back. As you lose more, you begin to lose control.

At this point, gambling is no longer a form of entertainment. For some, it can feel like a job. For others, it becomes a way to escape from an increasingly stressful reality.

Gambling becomes both the problem and the solution. It is used to escape from stress in the short term while contributing to even more stress in the long term.

According to a 2006 study, the following variables are correlated with problem gambling:

…an early big win, the size of the win, boredom susceptibility, impulsivity, a poor understanding of random events, use of escape coping, stressful life experiences and depression.

In other words, gambling addiction works by keeping you locked into a pattern of behavior where you continuously expect to replicate an early big win, compounded by an illusion of control, all while allowing you to escape from boredom or stress. One or many of these factors may exist in someone struggling with their gambling.

Gambling is No longer Just Entertainment

Many people use gambling as a form of entertainment, similar to going out for dinner. You have a budget, expecting to spend a certain amount for the entertainment.

When gambling becomes problematic, it’s no longer about entertainment. It becomes a way to profit or escape.

Jodie shares her experience with an early big win in an article in BASIS:

“I obsessed over the machine I had been playing and won on. I thought if I could just get back to it – get back to the incredible high I felt – a high unlike any I had experienced before – get back to that moment of possibility as the reels spun around – things would be good, money would be easy, life would be better.”

Craig shares a similar experience in an article in The Guardian:

“Gambling for me wasn’t about chasing the big win, it was about chasing the money I’d already lost”

Others primarily use gambling as a way to escape. According to a participant in a study published in the Journal of Gambling Issues:

“It’s just been a nice escape for me, so even though it causes me grief at times it’s an escape from reality… I think that’s the basic reason, is to get away from reality, just go to a fairy world. Yeah, it’s an escape, wherever your mind blanks out, you don’t think about it. That’s it, your little hideaway, on that chair.”

Just like any addiction, short term relief can come at a long term cost once the harms begin to exceed the entertainment value.

Gambling Changes the Brain

Problematic gambling changes the reward pathway in the brain, causing you to lose control over the behavior. Dopamine is produced when you encounter a favorable situation, rewarding you so that you can learn from the positive event and try to repeat it in the future.

This dopamine response is a useful learning mechanism if you are practicing a skill such as shooting basketballs into a net. Each time you get closer, your brain rewards you, reinforcing more skillful actions.

Our brains evolved to seek out patterns. Finding patterns helped us evolve as human beings. Consider the thousands of years of early human learning as hunter-gatherers. Recognizing weather patterns, animal behavior, and types of plants allowed early humans to survive and evolve.

In the case of gambling, this learning mechanism is hijacked by randomness. No patterns exist in a state of randomness, but we naturally try to find them anyway. The intermittent rewards trick the brain, continuously causing a dopamine response to near-misses, urging you to try again.

Though unlike basketball practice, there are no patterns and you have no control over the outcomes. Even if you know this consciously, your brain’s deeply entrenched learning mechanism continues urging you forward anyway.

As a participant shares in a 2017 study:

When you have a gambling problem, it’s the same as if you used heroin, or something else. Like, you don’t think anything else but where can you get more money. (Male, 34)

Even though gambling doesn’t require ingesting chemical substances, it produces the same dopamine response as any drug.

It’s Not Necessarily About the Money

As you can probably tell by now, gambling addiction is about much more than greed. Gambling is both a form of escapism and a source of thrill.

Going one step deeper, gambling is also often used to meet basic human needs. The basic human need for belonging particularly stands out.

When someone lacks a sense of belonging they often cope by seeking out status or specialness. Casinos are built around this principle, fostering status and specialness through elaborate marketing and reward programs.

Casinos often have multiple tier-leveled membership programs based on the amount someone wagers throughout the year. With names like Gold, Platinum, or Diamond status, members strive to achieve the next level, giving them special access to parking, entrances, rooms, trips, and events.

Casino hosts are sent real-time electronic information on where members are playing, how much someone has spent, and any other relevant information such as birthdays. Members are greeted by name at their machine or table and offered incentives. Of particular interest are players spending increasing amounts of money.

Other common casino incentives include invitation-only gift giveaways where players are mailed an invitation to visit the venue to pick up a gift which often consists of common household items like pots and pans.

Casino’s have a culture of their own, constantly facilitating a sense of specialness. For those who are socially isolated or suffer from low self-esteem, the casino marketing machine can artificially meet this need.

Summary

Gambling addiction works by hijacking the brain’s learning mechanism through random rewards.

As the harms outweigh the entertainment value, a person loses control over the behavior and becomes fixated on winning back losses.

Gambling can be a source of thrill or a form of escape from stressful life events. As gambling is used as an escape in the short term, it contributes to further problems in the long term.

Gambling addiction is not necessarily about money. Rather, it is often a form of escape, in addition to a way to fulfil an unmet need for self-esteem or belonging.

Although gambling addiction has several unique features on the surface, it functions like any other addiction. To learn more about the underlying processes in addiction, check out my article, What are the Root Causes of Addiction?

To learn more about my approach to addressing these underlying issues, check out my article How to Improve Psychological Flexibility. In that article, I delve into the six processes of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), sharing my favourite therapeutic metaphors and exercises.

Want some practical tips on how to control your gambling? Check out my new article, 7 Ways to Stop Gambling and Save Money.

If you are looking for specialized support, click here to learn more about my online services.

Want to Try Online Counseling?

Here are a few options worth checking out:

BetterHelp.com is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

It’s almost like having a counselor in your pocket, since you can text, voice-message, or set up video calls whenever you need support. 

For persons struggling with anxious thoughts, depressed moods, low self-esteem, low motivation, or loneliness, check out Better Help here to learn more.

Online-therapy.com also offers support for persons looking to optimize their mental toolbox. Click here to learn more about their program based on the evidence-based practice of Cognitive-behavioral Therapy (CBT).

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help and Online-therapy.com, I may receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

If you are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here. Although prices are generally higher on this directory, many of the practitioners accept insurance. 

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. Also, one of the most important factors in successful treatment is the quality of the therapeutic relationship. If you are not feeling supported, it is important to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.

Curious if online counseling works? I wrote an article here, looking at the evidence.


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2 Comments

  1. Jay A. J. Shuck

    Thank you for the post about a very real problem.

    Reply

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