Why do people gamble - Executive Summary


  • There is still no definitive answer as to why do people gamble and why it sometimes goes wrong
  • There is a lack of high quality research into the area but recent work in the field of neuroscience is showing interesting results
  • This is a layman’s review of the literature which, while incomplete, references all the main works.
  • The Map the Gap Report by the Rand Corporation in 2011 analysing gambling research showed that there was practically no research directly relevant to the UK and that a lot of existing research was methodologically poor.
  • The British Gambling Prevalence Study 2010 (BGPS2010) asked its sample why they gambled. The result was the chance of winning big money (83% of past year gamblers answered affirmatively), because it’s fun (78%), to make money (59%) and because it’s exciting (51%).
  • Per Binde, in his 2008 paper, ‘Why people gamble: A comprehensive motivational model.’ sees there as being five apparent motives for gambling, four being optional and evident and of importance to varying degrees and which may be in differing combinations, based on the player and the game being played. The fifth is essential and always present;
    • 1) The dream of hitting the jackpot
    • 2) Social rewards: communion (socializing with other people), competition (playing against opponents) and ostentation (the player displaying wealth, skill and strong character, thereby gaining prestige)
    • 3) Intellectual challenge. Gambling has the role of an intellectually stimulating hobby and interest.
    • 4) The mood change induced by games. Some games provide plenty of excitement (e.g. horse betting with large stakes), while highly repetitive games (e.g. slot machines) may be perceived as relaxing and a way of shutting out the outside world.
    • 5) The chance of winning constitutes the core of all gambling games. Winning has profound psychological and cultural significance. Winning produces a primordial joyful feeling, a most rewarding experience to any gambler.’
  • The BGPS2010 took a similar approach and classified their questionnaire into five different motivation categories; enhancement (gambling for the challenge, to compete against others, for a sense of achievement and for the excitement), recreation (motives related to filling time, hobbies and past times, fun and relaxation), social (gambling either to be sociable or because it’s something that one does with friends and family), coping (gambling to relieve tension or impress others) and money (the chance to make some)
  • What they found was that regular gamblers (who gamble at least monthly) as compared to past year gamblers, had a higher level of motivation (albeit only by a small amount) for all the categories except for social with money and recreation achieving the biggest differences
  • Gambling for recreational reasons was a key motivator for most, this was highest amongst those who were widowed and lowest among those who were married/living as married. These patterns may be largely explained by age differences, though not considered by BGPS2010 this could also possibly be gambling acting as a distraction, to boredom, loneliness or unhappiness or even practically by having the time (or permission) to do so.
  • The BGPS2010 did find that problem gamblers ‘were more likely to gamble for enhancement reasons. These have been defined as gambling to promote positive emotions and include gambling for excitement, achievement, challenge and competition. Likewise, problem gamblers were also much more likely to report gambling for coping reasons, that is, gambling to avoid or reduce negative emotions. These factors are both intrinsic to the gambler and these motivations seemingly differentiate problem and non-problem gamblers. Perhaps unsurprisingly therefore, social (and extrinsic) motivations were less important to problem gamblers than non-problem gamblers.’
  • For the majority gambling is fun and exciting, yet for the minority, who have pre-existing problems and use gambling as a tool to deal with them and thus get in to trouble with their gambling, seems to be the direction of travel for much of modern gambling research. Unfortunately, the absolute dearth of research into normal gambling behaviour, because of the academic focus on aberrant behaviour, means that we are lacking significant evidence to back up this hypothesis.
  • Some of the first research into gambling emanated from the beginnings of psychoanalysis and can be considered as the Freudian view of gambling. In Peter Fuller’s introductory chapter to ‘The Psychology of Gambling’ (1974) he summarises this early psychoanalytical work which puts much emphasis on a person’s irrational unconscious drives, the influence of early childhood and a preoccupation with sex, genitalia and the scatological. Gambling is considered by Freud as a basic addiction, similar to alcoholism and drugs addiction, all of which are derived from the ‘primal addiction’, masturbation.
  • Much of the early Freudian analysis is based on the work of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881), and more commonly his 1867 work, ‘the Gambler’, a piece of fiction that drew heavily on Dostoyevsky’s own gambling problems. It does seem incongruous to the layman that the world of psychiatry (even in its most early days) has been happy to base some of its developmental work on fictional literature.
  • One of the earliest psychologists to write significantly about gambling, and arguably the founder of the psychodynamic approach was Edmund Bergler (1899–1962), who was a pupil of Freud. Fuller explains that;
    • ‘Bergler developed the theme of ‘psychic masochism’. He considered that gambling was invariably the result of a search for unjust treatment: confirmation of the gambler’s belief that his parents were depriving him. He saw all gamblers as neurotics, motivated solely by this Oedipally derived masochism’
  • Bergler’s belief was that the gambler attacked reality by believing he can change his own environment, the gambler’s misplaced belief in being able to control and manipulate chance. This was seen as a childlike attitude which turns into guilt which in turn is a need for self punishment, which becomes sexualised as psychic masochism.
  • Otto Newman, one of the first British sociologists to write on problem gambling, who wrote his 1972 book, ‘Gambling: Hazard and Reward’ which was a sociological study of betting shops in London’s East End, favoured the structural functionalist school of sociological science. Structural functionalism is defined as;
    • ‘a sociological macro theory based on the assumption that society is made up of components that have distinctive functions. When essential components of society conflict, society creates mechanisms to handle the conflict and integrate the overall system. Society is like a big self-regulating machine or organism that, over time, maintains equilibrium’
  • The key writer was E.C. Devereaux, who in his unpublished thesis ‘Gambling and the Social Structure’ (1949) developed what would be one of the most lauded theories work of the time, In it, Devereaux suggests that gambling is a safety valve needed to balance and reconcile to the conflict in modern Anglo-Saxon societies between Puritanism-cum-Capitalism and the ideals of Christianity. This approach suggests that gambling is socially condemned by society as it goes against the prevailing Calvinistic/ Protestant work ethic and this is what also motivates people to gamble, they do so in rejection or opposition to the confines of this ethic.
  • The second most prominent British sociologist to look at gambling was D.M. Downes who also conducted a participant survey of gambling in Britain. He was also a fan of Deveraux, citing him in his 1976 book ‘Gambling, Work and Leisure – A Study Across Three Areas’ where he states that Deveraux looks on gambling as a strain, a state of tension, a pleasurable pain. Each stake hazarded by a gambler subjects him to a;
    • ‘veritable emotional shower bath … to the flesh and blood gambler, the situation is full of promise, but it is also full of mystery, and danger, and meaning … it is also fraught with strain: the conflicting valences and ambivalences of hope versus fear, risk versus security, power versus helplessness, and faith versus doubt are playing complicated melodies within his consciousness. The result is an intolerable, but not necessarily wholly unpleasant, state of tension’
  • Devereaux sees the gambler as having coping mechanisms to deal with this strain, these could be; a belief in luck, a resort to animism, the investiture of luck as an attribute of people and particular objects; the mental writing off of a stake to reduce eventual disappointment; the equation of stakes with business investments or with recreational expenditures; the focus on the stake: jackpot ratio rather than the number of prizes: number of players ratio in lotteries or the belief in systems as distinct from rational calculation of probabilities.
  • Downes expands on Devereaux’s thesis by arguing that gambling serves a purpose in meeting the needs, both social and personal, of gamblers which cannot be fulfilled in other ways by the capitalist society. This includes providing the gambler with the means of; protesting against budgetary restraints, protesting against reality, protesting against ethics, thrill seeking, competitiveness and aggression, problem solving, teleological motivations (the testing of luck) and extrinsic or contextual motivations (the conflict with the work ethic)
  • The economic approach argues that gamblers are all irrational because they gamble even though they know that the odds are stacked against them and that the ‘House’ always (or eventually) wins. This goes against the classical economic view of rational decision making by Homo Economicus. It is irrational to pay money for something you don’t get a return on. Newman argued that the return was for the enjoyment of gambling. Newman’s own work showed that gamblers realised that they would lose money in the long run but didn’t mind paying for the experience and the potential of short term gains. While not entirely explaining why people gamble, the economic irrationality argument has been a persistent undercurrent in the view of gamblers as being ‘deviant’ in their behaviour.
  • Gambling as a means of improving one’s social status is found in the work of the 1948 Friedman-Savage expected utility theorem, Nhama Tec’s, Gambling in Sweden (1964) and Robert Herman’s ‘Gambling as Work’ (1967), who all argue similar propositions, that due to the current socio-economic system people have little chance of improving their social status through traditional means. Gambling provided the opportunity to do so.
  • I. Zola’s ‘Observations on Gambling in a Lower Class Setting’ (1963) is similar to Otto Newman’s work, both derived from extensive participant observation, in that a betting shop forms;
    • ‘for the occupationally, culturally and socially deprived, a common and self-contained refuge from the hostile and indifferent outside world. The betting shop provides for the defeated, dispossessed and despised as fantasy substitute universe where they are enabled to enact a charade transforming them into activists, victors and entrepreneurs, where – by ‘beating the system’ personified by the bookmaker’s runner – they are able to experience the illusion of accomplishment, achievement and personal control, even if only in their brief and infrequent moments of triumph. For these experiences the initial definition of insider and outsider and above all the associates’ mutual fulfilment of their various functions and roles is considered to be vital and indispensable.’
  • Probably the most famous work looking at gambling from a sociological perspective are the works of R. Caillois’s Man, Play, and Games (1962) and J. Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (1949) who perceive gambling as a form of ‘secular divination’.
    • ‘Longing for intense emotional experience, believing in personal power to command one’s destiny subject to proper performance of magic and ritual allied to firm convictions of being able to divine the intentions of the supernatural deities, characterise contemporary gambling with its belief system of luck, magic and superstition no less than the religious system of primitive man.’
  • Caillois defines play as a basic human experience characterised by isolation from real life, by uncertainty of outcome and by being a non-productive voluntary activity from which the participant at all times is allowed to withdraw from. He sees four distinct categories of play; a) Agon – competitive games which resemble combat, b) Mimicry – games of illusion and delusion, c) Ilinx – games of voluptuous panic and vertigo, and d) Alea – games of chance.
  • Caillois, though looking at the evolution of different societies through the filter of games, makes a key point when looking at what motivates gambling, that most people are unable to radically change their stations in life. However much hard work this will always be the case. Chance (gambling) is the one opportunity there is to do so. Alea compensates for the ‘cruelties of merit’
  • In ‘Gambling Cultures, Studies in history and interpretation’, edited by Jan McMillen, Mc Millen’s own article ‘Understanding Gambling, History, Concepts and Theories’ is rather critical of the way gambling has been studied. She cites economic studies which have perceived gambling as;
    • ‘Self-defeating irrational behaviour leading to financial problems at a personal and social level (Rosett 1965, Rubner 1966, Cowan 1974), and of social science theories which considered gambling as destructive of the individual (Simmel 1920, Freud 1928, Bergler 1957, Oldman 1978) and of society (Bloch 1957, Herman 1967, 1976, Peterson 1951). Psychologists and psychiatrists have played a key role in arguing that a proportion of gamblers are unable to resist impulses to gamble and consequently compromise, disrupt and damage personal, family and work relations (Dickerson 1984, Halliday and Fuller 1974, Lesieur 1984, Lesieur and Custer 1984, Lesieur and Puig 1987)’
  • She identifies the USA (where for much of the time gambling has been illegal) as having created a large body of work that identifies gambling as counter to the dominant social values. The implication being that this is the reason it must be controlled. McMillen questions how this negative approach is contrary to most research into leisure activities which generally have beneficial outcomes both individuals and society. She argues;
    • ‘Because these analysts accepted without question the legal restrictions and moral condemnation of gambling they have not considered that gambling may be beneficial to individuals in the same way [as other leisure activities]’
  • McMillen and Downes both cite the work of Erving Goffman, whose essay ‘Where the action is’ in 1967as being the first study to put gambling in a positive perspective (gambling for social reward). Goffman argued that rather than gambling promoting deviant behaviour it actually provided players with an opportunity to exhibit such positive character traits as risk-taking, courage and honesty. This in turn contributed to society by reaffirming conventional moral values. By taking the gambler outside his normal life it allowed him to partake in society in a beneficial manner.
  • Goffman proposes that the chief motivation for gambling is not economic gain, nor is it mere impulsiveness or irrationality, but ‘The possibility of effecting reputation is the spur’;
    • ‘Those who never risk never avail themselves of the opportunity to gain or lose ‘character’ in this way: they thereby lose direct connection with some of the values of society, though they may vicariously experience them via the mass media. Soap operas, thrillers, Westerns, what the French term ‘histoires heroiques’, re-establish and confirm our connection with values concerning character. Yet it is via gambling that men commonly struggle to achieve character in a society which has all but arranged action out of everyday life.’
  • Goffman’s work is most renowned for his study of interactive gambling behaviour and reflects one of the most basic theoretical approaches within the sociological perspective: symbolic interactionism
  • In Tomas Martinez’s 1983 ‘The Gambling Scene – Why People Gamble’, he also picks up on the idea that the social interaction and social context of that interaction affect the behaviour of the gambler;
    • ‘From the research presented here, it is clear that gambling is an experience that has significant consequences for self-identification. It can be said, in fact, that gambling is an identity-defining experience with differential impact upon the players. The important point may be that gambling is an identity-defining experience for a significant number of people.’
  • Abt, Smith & Christiansen in their 1985 book, ‘The Business of Ri$k, Commercial Gambling in Mainstream America’ cite both Henry Lesieur (1977), Jay Livingston (1974) and Igor Kusyszyn (1978) who see problem gamblers as those who while becoming habituated to gambling, progress through a series of stages and through differential association and immersion in gambling situations and the resulting congruence of the gambler role and his identity, where he becomes a different individual and his behaviour becomes pathological. They also cite Goffman;
    • ‘Here, as in Goffman’s analysis, the importance of socially and culturally constructed roles in determining gambling behaviour emerges. On entering gambling situations individuals assume one of the many possible gambler-roles, one of which is the role of compulsive gambler.’
  • This is similar to Martinez’s naturalistic theory of compulsive gambling, where he hypothesises that;
    1. The process of becoming a problem gambler can be conceptualised sociologically as the development of a total commitment to the gambling scene.
    2. As the subject moves from beginner to regular to compulsive gambler, his conception of the gambling changes as he experiences certain shifts in conscious moods, interprets them as pleasurable, and uses them as indicators of self-identity.
    3. Experiencing these shifts in conscious moods makes total involvement possible, which in turn makes total commitment conceivable.
    4. When a total commitment to the gambling scene develops, the subject anoints self as a compulsive gambler, although the label may not be taken on, the behaviour is manifested.
    5. As a compulsive gambler, the gambling action means a chance to experience a sense of high self-esteem through the externalisation of a fantasised self that is tolerated by the subculture of the gambling scene.
    6. The identity and total commitment is maintained through ritualistic involvement in the gambling scene.
    7. Staying in the action becomes more important than winning or losing.
    8. While in the action, the compulsive gambler maximises pleasure through maximisation of the game’s activities
    9. As a consequence of staying in the action as long and as often as possible, the compulsive gambler begins to lose consistently, which tends to cause a shift in conscious moods from pleasant to unpleasant
  • Abt, Smith & Christiansen believe that, except for compulsive gamblers, very little can be explained by the reductionist psychological approach and the preferential method is symbolic interaction within a sociological perspective. Gambling covers a variety of behaviours and activities, most of which are influenced by the interactions between the gamblers and the games, the majority of which do not lead to financial disaster or compulsive self-destruction. Gamblers learn their behaviour through their interaction with the game and with those also playing the game. The consequent behaviour is determined by the game itself, the context in which the game is conducted, the personality of the gambler and the interaction between the gambler and the characteristics of the game.
  • Abt, Smith & Christiansen go on to develop a classification of gambling behaviours, identifying types and levels of involvement (through expenditure of time, money and energy), stressing that a gambler can have different types of behaviour when indulging in different gambling activities. Their typology includes casual gamblers, occasional gamblers, risky gamblers, professional gamblers, habitual gamblers, serious gamblers and obsessive gamblers They are keen to point out that obsessive gamblers are not compulsive gamblers;
    • ‘The obsessive gambler is not sick in a clinical sense. Control is a fundamental characteristic of all obsessive behaviour, whether the object of the obsession is horseracing or jogging. The obsessive horseplayer stops betting before he loses everything’
  • Compulsive gamblers are the step beyond obsessive gamblers and have personality disorders. Their defining characteristic is that their behaviour is uncontrollable. Like obsessive gamblers, compulsive gamblers want to keep playing; but unlike all other gambling behaviours, compulsive gambling is not constrained either by the characteristics of the gambling games themselves or by the prospect, or even the actual fact, of unaffordable losses. The motivation to start gambling for a compulsive gambler may start for purely innocuous reasons but then progresses and transforms from interactional behaviour into purely game generated behaviour. Like with the obsessive, it is the game and not the gambler who is in control. Unlike the obsessive, whose actions are an escape into the subculture of the game, the compulsive gamblers behaviour is motivated by internal psychological needs that are not social in origin.
  • Abt, Smith & Christiansen state that conventional gambling behaviours are, in contrast with what some psychiatrists think, a form of play and basic features of play are the motivations for gambling. Conventional gambling is similar to other forms of play; it does not intrude into the “ordinary life”, impair the gamblers ability to work or carry out his personal functions and is a voluntary behaviour. The financial losses incurred due to conventional gambling are the same as expenditure on other leisure activities.
    • ‘The risk, diversion, excitement, temporary escape, immediate gratification of individual decisions, possibility of financial gain, and multitude of similar satisfactions that conventional gamblers derive from gambling are values received in exchange for gambling losses … To individual gamblers and to society these expenditures are, in sociological terms, normative behaviour, conventional gambling losses are discretionary and affordable payments for play.’
  • As for unconventional gambling, they see professional gambling as serving an economic purpose so it considered work. Obsessive gambling is an escape from societal or personal pressures; the gambler allows the game to intrude into his ‘ordinary’ world in order to impose the order of the gambling subculture. Conventional gambling motivations are replaced by motivations generated from the game itself. Compulsive gambling is a manifestation of personality disorder. It is self-destructive, infantile and completely uncontrolled.
  • This, while incomplete, summarises the main writers of the sociological school looking at the motivations behind gamblers. They argue that the impulse to gamble can be anything from money and excitement, to rebelling against the capitalistic system, a refuge from a chaotic outside world, a distraction from masturbation and a desire to be part of the action to show off some ‘higher attributes’ such as courage, honesty and risk taking in a world where these attributes are not often called upon. In fact, almost every sociological theory has been attached to why people gamble; much of it unfortunately, is pure supposition.
  • A common theme is the belief that gamblers can get ‘sucked’ into the gambling environment and the society and rituals that exist in these venues (there is minimal research of the impact of online gambling). This is seen by many as the path to problem gambling. For reasons that are mostly unclear but seem to do with disassociation and/or distraction, a subset of gamblers take on a persona and may be considered as participating in an adult playground. The more that he or she becomes involved in the ‘action’, the more likely they are to have a problem. However, there is some dispute as to whether this problem ends up as ‘compulsive gambling’, an obsessive activity, on a par with obsessive jogging, shopping or sex or worse. Whether the gambler maintains control seems to be the key determinant.
  • This is one of the ‘thorniest’ issues in the problem gambling debate as for many in the problem gambling treatment world, they do not see there as being a distinction those who are obsessed and those who have a serious psychological issue with it. Many have taken this further by arguing that these compulsive gamblers are in fact addicts, like alcoholics or drug addicts. While we are not dealing with a substance addiction here, the symptoms do appear similar to many in this field and a debate rages between those who believe in the Pathological model – gambling addiction, gambling as a disease, and those who believe that those with issues with their gambling are far more complex in their problems.
  • Michael Walker, in his article The Medicalisation of Gambling as an Addiction’ argues that over time, gambling has gone from being considered a socially deviant activity (as in heavy gamblers can sometimes disrupt their lives, their family life and their employment) to one of considering heavy gambling as an addiction and he argues that this is not proven;
    • ‘a pathology of gambling as an addiction has not been demonstrated, and that the similarities between drug addiction and heavy gambling are overstated. The movement to medicalise gambling as an addiction is not based on sound empirical evidence.’
  • Walker explains that the transition from considering gambling as a vice and a sin to a sickness was associated with the development of the psychoanalytic perspective of human nature. This view considered over indulgence (e.g. in drugs or alcohol) to be a form of mania and consequently, heavy gambling to be a ‘compulsion’. In the 1980’s, researchers in the medical community, such as Dickerson (1984) and Maze (1987), questioned whether heavy gambling actually had the characteristics of classical compulsive neurosis. This, Walker suggests, made the psychiatric community shift its perspective and decided to see heavy gambling not as a disorder of impulse control (compulsive gambling) but as an addiction, called problem gambling or pathological gambling.
  • Walker explains that the original criteria for substance abuse had two critical components; tolerance and withdrawal. Tolerance refers to the fact that more and more of the drug is required to produce the same effects and withdrawal refers to a syndrome of bodily reactions which occur when the drug is not used. Both are physiologically based.
  • Originally it was thought that drug addiction was based on negative reinforcement; the addict takes more and more of the drug when they build up tolerance and keeps addicted because the effects of withdrawal were so terrible they wouldn’t countenance it. This changed in the late 80’s, early 90’s to a belief that drug addiction is due to positive reward value (it feels good) is the main motivation. This is because of a number of observations; that a) negative reinforcement doesn’t explain relapse, b) some drugs such as cocaine have relatively minor withdrawal symptoms and c) there is strong evidence that all addictive drugs operate through the dopaminergic component of neurotransmission. Thus the reward value of the drug is the motivation for its use and continuation of use. Walker argues that there is nothing particularly pathological (diseased) about this as an addict is basically identical to a non-addict. He then considers whether addiction is pathological because of predisposing biological mechanisms and finds weak evidence (for alcohol mainly) but these obviously can’t apply to gambling (it not being ingested).
  • Walker proposes his new ‘perspective for gambling’. If excessive gambling is not akin to the drug addiction then what is it? He proposes that the starting point for understanding gambling;
    • ‘is not the insensate pleasure afforded by drugs but the sense of mastery that comes from striving at games of skill. The core idea is not ‘addiction’ but ‘commitment’. The gambler is ‘heroic’ not ‘hooked’. Perhaps he or she is also a fool, but then the same claim might be made about martyrs to causes everywhere’
  • In Alex Blaszczynski and Neil McConaghy’s 1989 paper; ‘The Medical Model of Pathological Gambling: Current Shortcomings’, the authors add to the growing critique with the medical disease model (or Pathological model) approach to problem gambling. They cite the similarity with research on alcoholism, especially that of Marlatt (1979), which argues that that the medical disease model implies the existence of an illness, with symptoms and features characteristic enough to diagnose the sufferers as different to those who indulge but aren’t ‘infected’. In terms of problem gambling, the ‘sick’ gambler could be identified by his history of disorder, gambling patterns, personality profile and biological factors.
  • o ‘The dimensional model, on the other hand, argues that pathological gambling is an end point on a continuum that ranges from no gambling through to heavy and problematic gambling and that social learning principles are important determinants of an individual’s position on that continuum at any one time.’
  • Their main argument against the pathological model is that there is not any evidence to prove that compulsive gamblers form a distinctive categorical group distinct from social gamblers
    • ‘Although at this stage [1989] the bulk of the evidence is in favour of a dimensional model of pathological gambling, the possibility that data will be produced to swing the balance toward the opposing view remains real. While socioenvironmental variables are causally significant in the development of pathological gambling behaviour, such variables do not appear to fully explain its etiology. Many individuals are exposed to conducive environmental conditions but still fail to manifest pathological gambling traits, rendering it possible that those at risk do have predispositional tendencies that increase their vulnerability. If such predispositional variables are biological in origin then a medical model conceptualisation of gambling may be valid.’
  • Eleven years later and research has shown that it is a mixture of variables that causes problems. Alex Blaszczynski has teamed up with Lia Nower for their 2001 paper; ‘A pathways model of problem and pathological gambling’ where they attempt to integrate the multiple biological, psychological and ecological, variables that contribute to the development of pathological gambling and arrive at three distinct subgroups of gamblers with impaired control over their behaviour. These groups include (a) behaviourally conditioned problem gamblers, (b) emotionally vulnerable problem gamblers and (c) antisocial, impulsivist problem gamblers.
  • Conceptually, pathological gambling is either seen as a categorical disorder or as an end-point on a spectrum of involvement. Those from the psychodynamic and disease model of addiction have sought to find distinctions between social and pathological gamblers and similarities with other substance abuse disorders. Those adhering to the dimensional view believe the only defining feature is involvement.
  • Blaszczynski & Nower believe that there are three subgroups; the first group lacks psychiatric pathology but falls prey to a highly addictive schedule of behavioural reinforcement. The second group is biologically and emotionally vulnerable, characterized by high levels of depression and/or anxiety, while the third group, also possessing these vulnerabilities, is decidedly impulsive, antisocial and typically dually addicted.
  • The final approach to considering why people become problem gamblers is to look at the new area of research in neuroscience, which uses real time scans of brain activity. This new avenue has elements of the much criticised Pathological model about it as it seems to be arguing that problem gamblers maybe pre-disposed.
  • In Luke Clark’s 2010 paper; ‘Decision-making during gambling: an integration of cognitive and psychobiological approaches’, he looks at the interaction between cognition and emotion in human decision-making. Clark’s aim is to integrate the two approaches that have been predominant in considering gambling. He calls them the cognitive approach – which emphasizes thought and control issues (which has similarities with the dimensional approach of Blaszczynski and McConaghy 1989) and the psychobiological approach (the pathological model although enhanced by actual research into the brain) which seeks to find a categorical difference between pathological gamblers and non-pathological ones
  • The cognitive approach argues that the problem gambler continues to play because they have distorted beliefs about gambling and this leads them to overestimate their chances of winning (Ladouceur &Walker 1996). These, and other beliefs, make the gambler confuse a game of chance with a game of skill due to an illusion of control (Toneatto et al. 1997; Raylu & Oei 2004a, Langer 1975; Thompson et al. 1998). Where the game actually has a skill element, the gambler overestimates how influential the skill element is (Ladouceur & Walker 1996). In believing that they are acquiring the necessary skills to win (or even that such skills exist in principle), the gambler is able to justify continued play. Research by Ladouceur & Walker 1996, Walker 1992, Griffiths 1994, Baboushkin et al. 2001, Joukhador et al. 2003 supports the assumption that the more problematic a gambler, the more erroneous their thoughts about gambling.
    • ‘the cognitive approach has considerable explanatory power: this framework can capably explain the general prevalence of gambling as erroneous cognitions and inaccurate perceptions of randomness are common in infrequent gamblers. The cognitive framework can also explain the process by which gambling becomes pathological as problem gamblers are hypothesized to make more erroneous cognitions (or to have greater conviction in those beliefs, or to be more inclined to use their faulty beliefs to justify continued gambling).’
  • The psychobiological approach is attempting to differentiate between the way the brain functions in pathological and non-pathological gamblers. It does this by measuring the brain, either its neurotransmitter function (the use of neurochemicals), or, indirectly by using patients suffering from brain damage, or directly, by taking FMRI scans.
  • The study of neurochemicals has focused on the monoamines, dopamine, serotonin and noradrenalin, which are known to play key roles in arousal, motivation and higher cognitive functions. As these chemicals are difficult to study in the brain, they use markers in blood, urine or cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). The work of Roy et al. 1988, Bergh et al. 1997, Nordin & Eklundh 1999 and Meyer et al. 2004 shows that these chemicals alter when gambling takes place.
    • ‘In summary, neurochemical studies of problem gambling have taken a number of indirect approaches to the measurement of neurotransmitter function. There are preliminary indications of changes in serotonin and noradrenalin function (see also Potenza 2008), and indeed, much reason to think that other transmitters like glutamate may be dysregulated (Grant et al. 2007). The most consistent finding at the current time is for dysregulation of dopamine function in problem gamblers, although the direction and precise mechanisms of this effect remain unclear.’
  • When testing for impulsive or risky decision-making, especially financial decision making, pathological gamblers have shown results similar to people who have damaged to their ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC).
  • In Reza Habib and Mark R. Dixon’s 2010 paper, ‘Neurobehavioral evidence for the ‘‘near-miss’’ effect in Pathological gamblers’, they suggest that pathological gamblers’ brains operate differently to non-pathological gamblers when presented with a near win situation on a slot machine. The problem gambler activating similar areas of the brain as when it is presented with a win, the non-pathological activating the same as when it is presented with a loss.
    • ‘Together, these sets of analyses support our hypothesis that non-pathological gamblers are more likely to view near-misses for what they truly are—losing outcomes, whereas brain activity in pathological gamblers indicates that near-misses appear to activate some of the same brain regions that are activated in this group when they experience winning spins.’
  • Habib & Dixon point out that the win network is more extensive in pathological gamblers than in non-pathological ones and that the network extends into the brain’s emotional and reward systems. Since no monetary reward was received for the experiment the implications are that pathological gamblers found winning and near miss spins more pleasurable, positive and rewarding. Another interpretation is that a pathological gambler has come across near misses and wins more often, purely due to the amount of gambling indulged in, and this triggers more extensive behaviours associated with gambling.
  • This area of research is ongoing and still at its earliest stages. By the time the reader of this paper reads it, it is highly possible that more groundbreaking work could have been accomplished and we are a lot closer to understanding what makes people gamble and what makes people have a problem with it.
  • What is clear at this moment of writing is that we have some assumptions for why people are motivated to gamble; they find it fun and they like the chance of winning money, even though they know in the long run, they can’t make a net gain through repeated gambling. We have some concepts that a minority are consumed by the world of gambling; its games, its culture, it values (which are seen as mostly positive) and its sociability, which may act as a distraction for these people from the problems they have in their own lives, and that for some, this leads to abnormal gambling behaviour (the phrase problem gambling implies a pathological condition and that is uncertain). This abnormal gambling behaviour can either have an element of control, and so creates an obsessive gambler who is akin to an obsessive of any nature (shopping, sex, jogging etc.), or has no control and thus is self-destructive and akin to (but arguably not the same as) a substance addiction.
  • What is becoming apparent from the world of neuroscience is that there is the possibility that people with abnormal gambling behaviours (they use the term pathological gambler, which is problematic for the reasons given above, plus in some cases it has been applied for SOGS screens scoring more than 2 which we would not denote as problematic have a different brain chemistry than normal gamblers. Abnormal gamblers either are getting addicted to the hormones given off in the excitement of gambling and/or are showing similar neural reactions to near misses than to wins, when normal gamblers relate near-misses to losses. Both of which positively reinforce the behaviour. Why this should be the case is uncertain as given neuroplasticity, it might be an accident of birth or it might be due to early life experiences. We know that exposure to gambling while young is a determinant of a normal gambler; there is a correlation that the children of abnormal gamblers become abnormal gamblers, but it’s probably safer to say that exposure while young ‘normalises’ the gambling experience when older and thus eases any abnormal gambling career.
  • What we it also becoming apparent is that the ‘exposure model’ which implies that if you increase the amount of gambling you directly increase the numbers of abnormal gamblers is being seen as more and more overly simplistic. It probably did apply to environments where previously gambling had been outlawed and thus only indulged in by those in certain groups of society , as when it was legalised, there was a ‘novelty factor’. But over time, there is little evidence that continued exposure leads to continued increases in abnormal gambling behaviour.
  • This author believes that there is a need for further research, both into the neurobiological evidence of abnormal gambling behaviour, to see if people are pre-disposed, and the assumption that those on the path to having problems with their gambling may be doing so to distract themselves from other problems in their lives. Gambling may well be a self-medication in the same way alcohol and drugs are, to distract someone who is unhappy for other reasons. Our suspicion is the answer maybe a mixture of the two.