Gambling Addiction

Gambling is one of many addictions that plague our society and individuals within it. Like most addictions, compulsive gambling consumes and destroys lives. It is one of the more dangerous addictions because it is so accessible. It is promoted and perpetuated by the government and casinos across the country. Around 1-3% of Americans suffer from compulsive gambling and the negative consequences vary from person to person. For many compulsive gamblers, betting isn’t as much about money as it is about the excitement. Sustaining the thrill that gambling provides usually involves taking increasingly bigger risks and placing larger bets. Gambling addiction researchers propose that our brains have not been evolved to properly make decisions in todays society especially gambling decisions and therefore we consistently make errors in judgment, this is amplified in gambling addicts who cannot override their impulses to gamble and cannot properly make decisions that mediate risk and reward. Neuroimaging studies suggest similarities between behavioral and substance addictions. Gambling addiction has extremely similar effects in the brain as a drug addiction would. Here is a great quote from Dr. Alan Leshner, a prominent addiction researcher, applicable to any addiction, “Understanding that addiction is, at its core, a consequence of fundamental changes in brain function means that a major goal of treatment must be either to reverse or to compensate for those brain changes”. Gambling is a deadly combination of reinforcement. A near miss has the same kind of conditioning effect on behavior as a success. A near miss could produce some of the excitement of a win, i.e., secondary reinforcement. Therefore, the player is not constantly losing but constantly nearly winning. Failing to fulfill a goal (e.g., not winning on a slot machine) produces frustration, which energizes ongoing behavior. Subsequent wins then reinforce behavior. The frustration produced by nearly winning would induce a form of cognitive regret. The elimination of regret can be achieved by playing again, and this in turn encourages future play. The mechanisms that drive compulsive gambling are very powerful and can change one’s brain chemistry for a very long time. For more information on gambling and neuroscience start with this article:


7 thoughts on “Gambling Addiction

  1. I never thought of how gambling addictions are unique in that a near miss still provides reinforcement of the behavior. Is a gambling addiction similar to a drug addiction in its physical as well as neurological signs of withdrawal. I believe the increased anxiety has been clearly documented but I am not sure about any of the other symptoms. It would also be interesting to observe how other drugs impact gambling addicts. Since people often drink or smoke (less so now with new smoking laws but likely still has a large impact in gambling situations other than casinos) while gambling it would be interesting to look into a possible interaction between the two. Also to see if there is a concordance for alcohol and gambling addictions. If this were seen however, it could be either a genetic predisposition to addiction instead of a matched effect from the two.


  2. I really like this post because I think talking about gambling addiction is incredibly important, however, not many people take it seriously or think it is an actual addiction. I worked in a public health coalition over January, and we would always laugh about the gambling brochures we handed out to teenagers because it seemed so implausible that young kids could actually be addicted to gambling – but it’s true, it definitely IS a legitimate addiction as much as any alcohol or drug addiction. I predict that we will actually see it get worse, and that the percentage of people who are addicted to gambling will increase, because it seems to be a growing industry that is not often the target of prevention or education (at least not near the amount as tobacco or alcohol are). Casinos are becoming more and more popular (especially with the $ incentive for the state’s economy) and online gambling is proliferated and seems to be fairly unregulated. Gambling is certainly a problem that we need to be aware of, and perhaps we need to spend a little bit more time educating ourselves and school-age kids about the dangers of it.


  3. This is a very interesting article. Gambling addiction is a significant problem that is unfortunately overlooked in our society. We tend to think of addiction as the result of putting addictive properties (such as nicotine) into our bodies, but behavioral addictions such as gambling are just as potent. The fact that neuroimaging studies confirm this fact is particularly important. Just as the dangers of drug abuse are drilled into our heads as we grow up, so to should the dangers of gambling be given heavy consideration. As Molly mentioned above, the problem will only get worse if it continues to go unnoticed. The complexity of gambling addiction was also striking; with so many mechanisms at play, it is scary to think about how difficult it must be to rid yourself of the addiction. This makes me curious as to the treatment methods of gambling addiction. Can victims ever truly rid themselves of this crippling addiction?


  4. I found this article very interesting as I had never given much thought to behavioral addictions. If neuroimaging studies have shown that there are many similarities between behavioral and substance addictions, do gamblers experience withdrawal symptoms similar to those of a drug addict? How might the treatment for gambling addictions look? Would CBT be most beneficial, as gambling has many effects on brain functioning? Could drug therapy be used to treat a behavioral addiction? It would be interesting to compare the “recovery rate” of alcoholics, drug addicts and gamblers, to see if the road to recovery look similar between behavioral and substance addictions.


  5. It’s not surprising that gambling is a significant problem because we are put in similar situations from a young age. Almost every professional sports league has a bracket challenge for the playoffs trying to guess who will win. Furthermore, we are taught in school from a young age to take an opinion/side, so people like the excitement of putting their opinion with stakes. This is why I think it takes people a while to realize that they have a problem. I would also be interested in what therapy would be like for a gambling addiction. Drug addictions can escalate pretty quickly to more dangerous and addictive drugs, but what is it like for gambling? Do most people stay at low stakes bets for a while? I also find it interesting that people continue to gamble at casinos because it’s known that the odds are against them.


  6. This article immediately drew my attention because over the past few years I’ve learned to thoroughly enjoy playing poker with my friends, however, there have been situations where I’ve witnessed things go a little too far. Although I love the game of Texas Hold em, and I do enjoy betting money on occasion, I quickly realized how dangerous gambling can be. I think the main problem is that those who are addicted to gambling don’t have good judgement about when to draw the line, even when they’re down a lot of money. Ironically, I feel that the actual game of poker requires skill and keen judgement. Of course there is much luck involved, however many of the world’s best poker players have to be extremely good at judging whether or not to “stay in” or “fold” based on their hand. In addition, poker is quite a psychological game because it involves judging peoples’ bluffs. I think it’s really interesting how when enough money is involved, peoples’ judgements can be extremely skewed. I’m also curious about whether or not any particular mental disorders are correlated with compulsive gambling. I have a friend who was recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and although we haven’t played poker since his diagnosis, I remember him having the biggest issue with drawing the line the most.


  7. What an incredibly captivating article! Gambling and taking risks is something that everyone has experienced and thus the applicableness of this topic is one of the reason I found it so interesting.
    I found it intriguing that some researchers have proposed that one of the reasons why gambling addiction is so prevalent in our society is because our brains have not evolved enough for us to make good decisions in our daily lives. This lead me to wonder that if this claim of under-evolved brains were true, is there any other pattern of bad judgments in our society that might also be caused by under-evolved brains?
    Another interesting idea that was mentioned in the article was that gambling addiction has a similar effect on the brain as a drug addiction. It is not something I would have thought about before, but after thinking about it, it makes a lot of sense. I would assume one of the biological reasons gambling is so addictive is because it works on the dopamine reward pathway. The excitement of taking risks and winning big rewards is a pleasurable experience; therefore people would want more of it. When the stimulus is taken away, people might feel a low and crave that excitement of gambling again. I would assume the urge for addicts to gamble is caused by similar factors in the brain addict’s cravings to take drugs.
    Another interesting point is that when gambling, one never feels like they are losing, rather they are either winning or nearly winning. In Intro Psychology last year, I learned about an experiment with mice. The mice had to run down a ramp in order to get food. In one trail there food was always there and thus the mice always ran down to get the food. In another trial, the food was only there once and thus the mice did not run down the ramp because they did not expect to find any food. Another tail had the food present 50% of the time and absent the other 50%. This had the same effect on the mice as did the trail where the food was present 100% of the time. This experiment sounds very similar to what the author of this article was saying. People are not always losing. The winning therefore reinforces the gambling habit and thus makes it harder to stop.


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