Gambling can be a fun pastime, but it can also be a dangerous obsession. Problem gambling is an issue that has been widely reported in the press in recent years. In this article we explain why people gamble, why winning (and losing) can become so addictive, and how to look out for signs of gambling addiction. You can also find useful information on this subject on our Responsible Gambling page.
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The Three Types of Gambler
Gambling means something different from one person to the next. To simplify matters, we can split gambling into three distinct groups to understand how one man or woman’s fun might be another’s downfall.
The Casual Player
Firstly, we’ve all heard of the “housewives’ favourite” in the Grand National, the horse that the once-a-year punters are backing, probably because they like the jockey, the horse’s name or its colours. These punters are gambling in the strictest sense because they are placing a bet with a high street bookmaker, online or on the office sweepstake. Yet they are not what most of us would agree are “gamblers”. Betting often would be against their nature, so they are simply having a rare flutter because it’s the Grand National tradition. Win or lose; they likely won’t make another bet of any kind for 12 months.
The Experienced Punter
Next, you have experienced gamblers. They might bet each week on the football, play the slot machine occasionally in the pub, enjoy a game of poker or visits to a brick and mortar or online casino. They will be better skilled than the once-a-year punters, and they are comfortable placing bets largely for fun. They gamble within their means and can handle any loss as much as they enjoy the occasional win.
The Hardcore Gambler
And then, thirdly, we have what we might term as serious gamblers. They gamble every day and find that gambling has become a way of life. Some might be professional gamblers who are very good at what they do when there is a skill involved, like in poker or sports betting (or at least a serious sporting knowledge is needed). However, for others, they are gambling every day after perhaps falling into addiction. At this stage, they are gambling out of compulsion, perhaps on things like scratchcards or fixed-odds betting terminals without skill or reason. If left unchecked, this behaviour will do serious financial harm that could affect not only themselves but their friends and family.
The Psychology of Gambling
Why is it, then, that some people are happy to make one bet a year for a pound or two, while others spend a little more every week – and a small group gamble all the time? We need to examine what is happening in the human brain when we place a bet to understand the reactions.
What happens in your brain when you gamble?
Ask people why they gamble, and they will give different answers. It’s fun, a game of chance, or it offers social engagement might be some of the reasons. Rarely will anyone say: “To make money”, which at least recognises the difficult truth that the house usually wins over the long term.
However, each of us is subjected to the same brain changes when we make a bet, and this offers a more accurate reason for any of us to gamble. Scientists agree the common trigger from gambling is the release of Dopamine in the brain, a feel-good neurotransmitter that makes us think we’re in an enjoyable activity; as if we were eating, having intimate relations or taking drugs (don’t take drugs!). What makes Dopamine so effective in the gambling sense is that the brain releases it in anticipation of the gambling outcome, rather than only when there is a successful outcome, such as a winning bet. In other words, we feel good having a bet, whether we win or lose.
In some cases, this can almost present a justification for having another bet, and for those whom we might describe as having an “addictive personality”, a reason to gamble repeatedly.
Why is gambling addictive?
Studies show that repeated exposure to gambling can open “pathways” in the brain used by Dopamine. These pathways effectively change the brain’s behaviour and, like drug-taking, they become increasingly sensitive to the reward of Dopamine travelling through them. The gambler knows the only way to reward the brain is to gamble some more. Before he or she knows it, gambling has become a compulsion rather than something to be enjoyed occasionally or even once a year, like those Grand National bettors.
You must also confront the elephant in the room when considering why compulsive gamblers keep on making bets. They will likely be on a losing streak and chasing the belief that their luck is about to turn; that the next bet will be a winning one.
Unfortunately, much of this is irrational. If you are going to gamble, you must have the temperament to keep on top of your feelings, i.e. don’t go chasing, gambling more and more in the hope of turning things around. Accept losses for what they are and move on.
You might do well to look at the psychology employed by successful financial traders. They will accept maybe a run of five small losing trades, having got out of the trade at the right time, knowing a single winning trade will make more money than the five losing put together.
The best poker players also adopt this philosophy. In poker, you must always make the most of your winning hands and get out of losing hands as cheaply as you can. That way, you might lose many more hands than you win but still be in profit.
Addicted gamblers, however, may not be able to employ this sensible approach. If they have a couple of losses, they chase and make irrational choices; they do not know when to give up on a losing streak, and if they do land a big win they instantly reinvest it hoping to make for another windfall.
Why do gamblers get a high even when they lose?
As we’ve seen, Dopamine, an enjoyment signal in the brain is released in anticipation of a big win. This has helped scientists conclude that compulsive gamblers will repeatedly seek a rewarding experience despite knowing full well that winning is not likely.
Experts say the “high” of gambling is akin to taking cocaine, another addictive habit that the user employs despite knowing how bad it is for you in the long term.
The link in addictive behaviour doesn’t end there; medications used to treat substance addictions are increasingly being seen as a potential treatment for those with gambling addictions, with types of opioid antagonists preventing the brain cells from producing Dopamine, and therefore reducing the cravings.
The Gambler’s Fallacy
Gamblers, especially those playing casino games like roulette, will fall victim to the Gambler’s Fallacy. An example might be that as the last five numbers on a roulette table have been black, the chances are greatly increased that the next must be red.
While betting a normal amount on red would be fine, betting more because of the previous five successive blacks is incorrect – or the Gambler’s Fallacy. That’s because the next number always has a 50/50 chance of being black or red; the previous ones cannot influence the next number.
Recreational punters won’t mind falling victim to the Gambler’s Fallacy because they are rarely betting and do so within their limits. But problem gamblers can become blinded by a pattern and therefore bet an unreasonable amount that they can ill afford.
Take another example. Starting from scratch, it’s a one in eight chance that the first three tosses of a coin will be heads. However, if you are now going to guess the outcome of the next toss, it’s still 50/50 – not more likely to be tails simply because the previous three were heads.
Watching Out For Gambling Addiction
There’s nothing wrong in enjoying gambling, so long as you’re sensible. It’s socially acceptable, after all. We see gambling adverts all over the television and it’s likely a betting company sponsors your favourite football team.
However, as so many of those television adverts stress, with the support of the GambleAware organisation: “When the fun stops, stop.”
If you find you are chasing your losses, gambling more than you used to, thinking about gambling even when you’re not doing it, if it’s causing financial harm and affecting your personality, then seek help.
Every gambling operator in the UK is licensed by the UK Gambling Commission, meaning they are committed to providing support for problem gamblers. They are also taking measures to identify those with a problem and prevent them from playing more.
Like so many other things in life, gambling responsibly is fine, but take it in moderation. By playing carefully, you will enjoy the experience for what it is – a fun pastime rather than a relentless slog to recoup losses, a terrible downward spiral that is hard to stop.