Several years ago, people believed that true addictions could only be based on addictive substances such as drugs or alcohol. Activities such as gambling were not considered to be able to cause addiction, and people who were unable to control their gambling sprees were labeled as stupid and reckless.
However, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the gold standard for categorizing mental illnesses, finally classified pathological gambling as an addiction. People are starting to recognize the addictive nature of gambling, and this increased understanding will hopefully lead to more action to solve this issue.
“Not everyone who gambles has a problem with it. It is important to determine whether or not the other person has an addiction.” –Natalia S. David, PsyD.
Around two million individuals in America alone grapple with gambling addiction, and several million more face similar dilemmas around the globe. Many people believe that gambling is something that anyone can quit easily, but there is more to it than just willpower. The mechanisms by which the act of gambling becomes addictive are deeply rooted in psychology and cognitive science, and understanding these can help us design more effective therapies to cure people of this addiction.
The Reward System
Becoming addicted to behaviors such as gambling shares similar mechanisms with addiction due to substances. A particular region in the brain contains neural circuits that activate when people engage in pleasure-seeking activities such as eating or sex. Thus, this part is called the reward system of the brain, and it connects to several other brain regions that influence memory, pleasure, and motivation. The reward system serves a beneficial role by rewarding behavior that helps in survival, such as eating, or that helps in perpetuating the species, such as sex. This effect increases the motivation to seek out these activities in the future.
“If people were able to say ‘I am a problem gambler’ in the same way that they say ‘I am an alcoholic’ then it would protect them.” -Dr. Henrietta Bowden-Jones
However, you can also abuse the reward system. The thrill of gambling also produces the same feel-good neurotransmitters that other pleasurable acts can produce. Gambling activates the reward center, marking the activity as something that should be sought after in the future. As the addiction grows, connections of the reward center with the prefrontal cortex weaken. The prefrontal cortex influences decision-making and impulse control, and the weaker connections result in a greater difficulty to stop the addiction from progressing.
Many addicted gamblers hold beliefs that make them more vulnerable to losing control. For example, the common gamblers’ fallacy is the mistaken belief that a massive win must eventually follow a series of losses. Some people, then, take this as a sign to keep placing bets, even if they have already accumulated large losses.
Some specific gambling mechanisms also take advantage of the psychology of gambling. Some devices have random periods where they give rewards more frequently and generously, encouraging gamblers to stick around in the hopes of placing a bet during these high-reward times. Other devices entice losing players to keep on playing by increasing reward pots after a series of losses. Almost all machines used for gambling are adorned with bright lights and warm colors, and most casinos use classy decor that denotes a high-brow culture. All of these can subtly associate gambling with eventual riches in the minds of the players.
“Although any kind of gambling can become addictive, video slot and poker machines are the most seductive because they offer the greatest escape.” – Psychologist Robert Hunter
These mechanisms underscore the need for holistic treatments to stop gambling, such as therapies that include medication and counseling. Interventions on the part of casinos themselves, such as policies meant to discourage people from falling into addiction, are also necessary. Only a multisector approach can solve problems as complex as addiction.