Gambling addiction is a serious problem in many parts of the world. Some players get so hooked on a game, they end up placing bets as big as their mortgage without even thinking about it. In the aftermath of scenarios such as this, people have lost their families, their friends, their jobs, and practically their whole life to a slot machine or roulette table in a matter of minutes. So, how can someone be willing to risk their entire world, and that of their loved ones for the sake of winning a payout, that might barely cover 3 month’s rent? It’s an interesting psychological topic that we wanted to explore in more depth.

What happens to our bodies when we are addicted to something?

Practically all addictions, whether it be smoking, drinking, drugs, sex, food, or gambling release high levels of dopamine and serotonin. What these drugs or behaviors do, activate different parts of a person’s neural circuitry, connected to the reward system in the brain. So when you eat a piece of chocolate for example, your brain releases endorphins that tell your body “this is really nice, we need more of that”, and before you know it you’ve devoured an entire bar. When in fact, it’s not your body specifically requiring that chocolate, it’s just making you think you need it because of the hormones, the chemical reactions it releases, and the familiar feelings of pleasure it gave you at the time.

It’s the same with heroin – because the effects are immediate and intense, it’s incredibly easy to want more. But as your body grows accustomed to the drug, you begin building a tolerance to it as it becomes harder for your brain to produce the same levels of dopamine as it did when you first tried it. That’s why many users will always say “nothing ever compares to that first high”. That being said, someone who tries a drug once, or gambles for the first time, doesn’t necessarily become addicted instantly; there is a fine line between experimenting and getting hooked on something. This varies from person to person, as some individuals are more susceptible to developing an addiction than others.

It’s not just the effects on the brain that cause someone to develop a habit either, Countless research has been conducted to reveal that lifestyle, environmental and social factors all play a part in these cycles too. That’s why an ex-alcoholic who hasn’t touched a bottle in 10 years, may then visit an old pub they used to drink in and end up in a complete inebriated mess later. The familiarity and association of places, people, and objects can have a direct influence on a person’s neurotransmitters, which in turn, can affect their perception and willpower.

In gambling, it’s easy to think you’re going to win, simply because your brain is familiar with the motion and experiences of when you may have won in the past. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s guaranteed to happen again. And people chase after the belief that it will. That will make them feel exactly like they did the first time.

Addiction usually stems from something deeper

For problem gamblers, their addiction is usually down to an inner emotional conflict they have with themselves. They are desperate to feel that ecstatic full-body sensation you get when you win, in order to counteract their feelings of worthlessness, self-hatred, rejection, loss, or whatever destructive emotions are weighing them down in their lives. So when it comes to winning, especially BIG wins, it serves as the ideal way to cover up such negativity and help them forget – even if it’s only for a moment.

In many cases, this is fine, because as humans – we’re often encouraged to blow off steam in ways that we enjoy, but the actual ‘problem’ is knowing when to stop. Or when too much of a good thing can easily turn into something bad. When gamblers continue to lose, this fuels their need to cover up these negative emotions even more, when really all it is doing is digging them into a deeper hole and not doing anything to help them resolve their internal conflict. If these people were not able to gamble, they would simply find other ways to try and make themselves feel whole instead; whether this be through substance abuse, unhealthy relationships or other forms of addiction.

Gamblers still get high from losing

One theory goes that gamblers are just as addicted to losing as they are winning, according to one researcher at the Clinical Neuroscience Institute of The University of Cambridge. Using an MRI scan to assess the different parts of the human brain which are active when gambling, they discovered that when the person nearly loses, the same parts of the brain react in the same way they would work if they had won. This is because when a player finds him or herself close to winning a game, i.e. (seeing two cherries or a gold bar on a slot machine) they are subconsciously encouraged to continue even when they haven’t achieved the desired result. This is also because they feel they are inching closer to a win in the rounds that follow. Near losses, still mean there is hope and potential to win, so that fact alone is enough to keep people playing.

The act of placing a bet can be the addiction in itself

Another interesting theory, is that gambling addictions actually derive from the act of betting, and not whether the person wins or loses. As casinos are designed in a way to entice people to play, whether it be through lavish décor or a warm, cozy, and stylish environment, enthralling sounds and dazzling lights, or even how machines and games pay these little rewards; free games, bonus rounds and discounts – these are all part of the experience, and there to keep you playing for as long as possible. Even when you’re on a losing streak! It’s very clever marketing when you think about it – but not everyone who walks into a casino is able to appreciate these things as they are, or recognize when it’s time to call it a day.

According to a behavioral psychologist from the Nottingham Trent University, all of the things a casino flaunts at players are just extra incentives for a person’s habit. They conducted a survey of 5,500 gamblers to establish what the act of gambling meant to them and their motivations to do it. The strongest response was “to win big” followed by “it’s fun” and “because it’s exciting”. These sound like perfectly logical reasons on the surface, but essentially what’s happening is people are just “buying entertainment” when they walk into a casino or gaming floor. 

“People seem to be satisfied with relatively small wins, and will tolerate even smaller losses,” one of the co-authors of the case study Sridhar Narayanan said at the time. “They tend to be conscious that, in the long run, they are more likely to lose than win.”

So, if players are conscious of the fact that they could easily lose, why do they keep playing? Because in a warped kind of way, their expectations go down when they lose or have lost a few times, so that when they finally do win – they are much happier and satisfied with the outcome.

Overcoming a gambling addiction

It is estimated that every year, around 23 million Americans face financial debt just from gambling alone, with the average loss is estimated to be approximately $55,000 per player. Many will result to stealing from friends or family, maxing out credit cards, savings accounts, college funding, etc. just to pay off these debts, and most of the time they aren’t actually paying them off. Instead, they are gambling even more in the hope of recovering what they have lost in one big win. Naturally, this is a flawed methodology and very rarely works. What the person should do, is seek professional help for combatting their addiction and start the road to rehabilitation by taking the following steps. 

  • Make the choice – It’s very unlikely a person will be able to turn their gambling habits around, unless they truly want to. It is the same with any addiction, you cannot force someone to give up until they decide it for themselves. They might stop temporarily, but soon slip back into their old ways because it wasn’t their choice.
  • Get rid of your gambling fund – If you have anything left in your bankroll – withdraw it, and close any credit cards and accounts which could influence you to gamble. If the cases are extreme, it could also be worth setting up your bank so you can only withdraw or make transactions when there are 2 agreed signatures. This could be a spouse, family member or trusted friend.
  • Join a group – If you feel confident about discussing your addiction with others who are in the same position, it is definitely worth signing up to a support group such as Gamblers Anonymous. There is no controversy or stigma with these meetings, they are purely there to help you and other gamblers overcome their problem.
  • Confide in your loved ones – It can be very difficult opening up and admitting you have a problem to someone. Especially where your family or partner is concerned. But having them on your side and showing their support will only add to your motivation in pushing you to want to give up. Nobody should have to go through something like this alone.
  • Speak to the professionals – Luckily there is expert advice and psychological help out there which can help you get some perspective on your addiction, and enable you to deal with it in the easiest way. A therapist will be able to assess you properly and rule out anything that may be a trigger. Sometimes talking to a stranger brings surprising relief in situations like this as well.

Final Thoughts

If you or someone close to you has a gambling problem – know that you are not alone and it is actually a very common thing. What is important is moving forward and making a conscious effort to keep a positive mindset, and seek the correct help. It can be infuriating to learn that someone you are so close to has been wagering off all your possessions behind your back, but remember that gambling addiction is constituted as a mental health problem, and has been linked to other forms of disorders in the past such as bipolar. Therefore, if your loved one has a gambling problem or has been known to suffer with other mental illnesses in the past, treat it as a delicate matter, and don’t be afraid to get help or emotional support for yourself.

Nick Johnson is a lover of game theory and mathematics. After years as a quant on Wall Street, Nick stepped out of the fast lane to become a stay at home dad and write. After chasing the kids around all day and tucking his little ones in bed, Nick loves to relax playing in online Casinos and is a life-long poker enthusiast.