Psychology of Gambling

Psychology of Gambling

Gambling can go from being a fun, exciting activity to an unhealthy habit with life-altering consequences. Anyone can fall prey to gambling addiction; the race, financial status, or educational background do not matter. In this article, we will discuss the psychology of gambling in the USA, reasons why you can transition from being a social player to a problem gambler, and the betting addiction treatment.

Why People Gamble

Gambling is an activity where the number of people who lose a lot of money outweighs those who win massive sums. This fact is well known, so it is a wonder why people gamble. Why do people engage in an activity where they could lose all their money and go bankrupt?

Well, there are several reasons why people gamble. Many gamblers do it for recreational purposes and not because they “have” to. Here are some of the key reasons.

ExcitementSome people gamble to feel the rush of beating the odds. They love the exhilaration when their bet wins.
FunGambling is fun and enjoyable. Playing games and having a chance of winning money is pleasurable for many people.
SocializationGoing out to a casino is a great chance to meet new people. Bonding over a game or outcome is a great experience for many gamblers.
ChallengeThose who love to tackle challenges will go for games like poker and blackjack for a chance to flex their brain muscles.

Gambling Psychology Researches

You may wonder why certain individuals become hooked on gambling while others do not. Is it that we are all built differently, or are there deeper reasons for gambling addiction? Let’s consider some factors that influence gambling addiction (concluded by researchers).

Gender Influence

There’s been a number of studies on the gender influence on gambling. In 2013, a research team led by Marc N. Potenza carried out a study involving four groups of people. The test subjects were female recreational gamblers, male recreational gamblers, females diagnosed with IGD (Internet Gambling Disorder), and males diagnosed with IGD.

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The researchers monitored the brain activities of these 4 groups while they gambled. After gambling, the male and female recreational gamblers’ brain activity went back to normal levels. That of the females with IGD also reduced but not completely. However, the brain activity of the males with IGD remained increased for a long time.

The findings from this research show that male gamblers are 11% more likely to develop gambling addiction than females.

Age Factor

According to a study by the Journal of Child and Adolescent Behavior, young adults and teenagers are more likely to develop gambling problems than adults. This is because teens and young adults between ages 19 and 29 pursue more entertainment, seek peer approval, and often need coping strategies against life’s problems.

Pathological Gamblers

Marc Potenza carried out another study to prove that pathological gamblers’ brains react differently from other people’s brains when gambling is brought up. Gambling images were shown to a group of people; the brain activity of the recreational gamblers did not change. However, the brain activity of pathological gamblers spiked and remained at increased levels for a long time. Potenza concluded that pathological gambling is hardwired into the brain.

Gambling Persons & Relationships with Family and Friends

One of the worst things that gambling addiction does to people is that it destroys their relationships. Gambling addiction negatively affects the gambler, but it also affects their friends and family. Chronic gamblers are almost always irritable when they can’t get money to fund their habit. They take their frustration out on those closest to them, picking fights, giving the silent treatment, or worse, abusing them.

Gambling addicts tend to spend little time with anyone who’s not a gambling buddy, hence starving their loved ones of attention. They will often lie about their actions and where they have been. They may steal from their partners, friends, and even borrow from employers with no means of paying back.

All these break trust and cause a deep gap to form between the gambler and their loved ones. Worse, some states will make a spouse equally liable for a gambler’s debt, which, in most cases, will cause a strain and lead to a divorce.

Biological Basics of Gambling Psychology

When it comes to the psychology of gambling, everything can be traced back to the brain. Studies have shown that parts of the brain are connected to risky decision-making; the ventral striatum, the prefrontal cortex, and the amygdala. These parts are active when people take part in gambling activities where the odds of losing money are high.

Habits Formation

Habit formation describes the process by which a behavior becomes automatic through constant repetition. Scientifically speaking, the brain does not fully develop until the age of 25 on average. Until the brain completely matures, an individual is likely to exhibit reckless behavior (such as gambling). Neuroscience has proven that people between 18-29 years have the higher risk of forming bad gambling habits.

Neuroscience of Gambling

When gambling, the brain releases dopamine; this is a chemical neurotransmitter that causes feelings of pleasure. This chemical causes a gambler to experience an inexplicable feeling of joy whenever they win; they would do almost anything to experience that same feeling again and again.

However, as the player continues to gamble, their brain starts to build up a tolerance for gambling-made dopamine. The reward system doesn’t work anymore, so the gambler has to take bigger risks by betting larger amounts of money to get that dopamine rush. This is how addiction forms, and the player nosedives into debt, one bet at a time.

When Gambling is a Problem

As we have mentioned earlier, people gamble for a lot of reasons; some do it for fun, the thrill, or as a challenge. However, gambling can quickly spiral into a problem if the player does not exercise some measure of control.


In line with findings on gambling psychology, the American Psychiatric Association has created a guide which is a collection of mental disorders and the criteria with which they are diagnosed. This guide is called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV (DSM-IV), which states that there are 9 signs indicating an individual becoming a compulsive gambler.

According to the DSM-IV, if a gambler exhibits 4 or more of these nine warning signs, it indicates problematic gambling behavior:

  • They feel they should increase their gambling money to attain their standard of excitement.
  • There’s the feeling of restlessness or irritation when they try to stop gambling.
  • They made multiple efforts to stop or control their gambling, but all proved unsuccessful.
  • Constant preoccupation with gambling (for example, always thinking about gambling, how to get money for the next bet).
  • Always chasing their losses. That is, they return to the casino to win back the money they lost on previous occasions.
  • Gambling is their solution to distress.
  • They have lost or sabotaged important things because of gambling (relationships, jobs, career, etc.).
  • They can no longer provide to meet their needs and rely on others to bail them out.

Stages of Addiction

It is common knowledge that addiction doesn’t just start overnight. It happens over time, from one stage to another, until it becomes a problem. According to the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery, gambling addiction has 4 stages.


This part of gambling reels in people and hooks them in. Consistently losing at gambling often doesn’t get people addicted; it is the winning streak (or just a single win for some). In the winning stage of gambling addiction, the individual sees what it’s like to make easy money.

With luck and sometimes skill, the player begins to rationalize the idea of wagering more cash to continue getting that easy money. At this point, getting a small loan or pulling out savings becomes a good idea since the gambler believes the money will come back multiplied. To the gambler, it becomes a source of income.


“The house always wins” is not merely a saying but a fact. As much as the player has won, the table will turn, and the gambling house will be on the winning side. It is more likely that a winning streak will be followed by a trail of losses. During this losing stage, those carried away by the winning stage will find themselves in debt or unable to pay their necessary bills.

Sometimes, the player may have some small wins in this stage which might keep the hope of consistent winning alive. It is not uncommon to see them telling lies to their loved ones, who are sure to have noticed the quick depletion of money. But the player’s mindset is that with some time and money, their winning streak will resume, and there will be enough cash to settle all debts.


During this stage, it is evident that the winning streak will not happen soon, so the gambler becomes desperate. They keep thinking that throwing more money into gambling will eventually pay off. However, it doesn’t get better, and it begins to affect their mental health.

Often, they feel guilty and ashamed over their problem, but they can’t stop. Their relationships begin to take hits because they project their stress on others. They may cheat, lie, or even steal to finance their gambling habits. Hence, it’s not surprising that they sometimes end up in jail.


Here, the gambler has hit rock bottom and doesn’t see a way out. It is common to find them alone as their loved ones may have separated themselves from this mess. The debts have piled up, there’s no way to pay bills, and feeding might even become a hassle.

The gambler may take drugs or alcohol to deaden the pain. They take no interest in their health, whether they live or die. Unfortunately, some consider suicide as a means of ending their misery.

Treatment for Gamblers

No matter how low ‘rock bottom’ is, a gambler can still break out of it. Gambling addiction is not a life sentence. It is possible for addicts in the US and across the world to receive treatment and recover. US players can kickstart the treatment journey by calling or sending a mail to the responsible gaming department of their state gambling authority. For instance, a player in Louisiana experiencing problem gaming can reach out to the Louisiana Gaming Control Board for help.

Problem Gaming Help
US players can get help by calling or sending a mail to the responsible gaming department of their state gambling authority

Psychology to Overcome Gambling

Time and time again, psychologists have used therapy to treat gambling addiction. Cognitive behavior therapy is an important facet of the psychology to overcome gambling for USA players. It is an effective therapy used multiple times to treat problem gambling.

The method focuses on ways the player can resist thoughts about gambling, thus helping them break away from the habit.

According to research, about 80% of people addicted to gambling do not seek treatment. In most cases, this could result from a lack of money to pay for a therapist. However, some are motivated by family and friends to seek help and could get financial assistance from them too.

Gambling Facts

When gambling is properly analyzed, it is obvious to everyone that it is an incredibly risky endeavor. So, since gambling is rarely profitable to the majority, how come so many people still indulge in it? Here are some psychological facts that explain this phenomenon:

  • The gambler’s fallacy. It is a belief that a random event is more likely or less likely to occur based on the outcome of a past event.
  • Near misses. The act of “almost” getting the desired outcome which leads the gambler to believe that they will get lucky on the next try.
  • The illusion of control. This occurs when gamblers feel in control of a game because they have a choice over what bets they make.

The therapy type with the best results for treating gambling addiction is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). The treatment tries to change the behaviors and thoughts that cause a person to cling to a particular habit.

Gambling addiction could easily be referred to as a disease since it is a serious psychological condition. If left unchecked, it can destroy lives and ruin relationships.

Gambling disorder is also called compulsive gambling. It is the overwhelming urge to continue gambling regardless of its negative impacts on an individual's life.

There are 3 types of gamblers — the social gambler, the professional gambler, and the problem gambler. Often, problem gamblers will think they are professional or social gamblers, which is why most of them do not realize they have a problem until they hit rock bottom.

To help a problem gambler, you should motivate them to seek professional help. In psychology to overcome gambling, you have to stand your ground and let the gambler know you will stop bailing them out of their debts. You can also bring in other loved ones to help urge the gambler to seek help.

Publication Author
Donald Peterson
Author of articles
Donald Peterson is an avid gambler from Edmonton, Alberta, who also writes about his experience with casinos. He’s been in the business for over 10 years, following the ever-changing industry landscape. His articles are aimed at helping beginners with choosing casinos, suitable games, and strategies.
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