How the Brain Gets Addicted to Gambling

By Iasmina Bunea updated:

While substance abuse is rather easy to understand by most people, being addicted to an activity such as gambling raises a lot of questions. Not everyone who gambles becomes addicted to it, which is something that made it a lot harder to understand. Numerous studies have been conducted and research has been made to better understand this issue. Now scientists know the brain gets addicted to gambling and how the gamblers can be helped.  

What makes gambling addictive

One may think it is easy to become addicted to making easy money via gambling but the truth is, most of the times gamblers don’t even win. So why do they keep on playing?

Excessive gambling can dramatically alterate the way the brain sends chemical messages and it involves the reward system. This system makes gambling seem like a good thing to the player even if they are losing. It bypasses rational thinking and logic, and so they indulge in this activity without realizing then and there how much harm they are, in fact, doing to themselves.

The activity of gambling triggers a range of strong emotions the player can get addicted to, much like in the case of substance addiction.

What makes gambling addictive

What happens in the brain of a gambler

The reward system of the brain, also known as the ventral striatum, is a very important part of understanding this and any other addiction. This is a series of circuits connected to various regions of the brain, notably the memory, motivation and pleasure centres.

When we engage in enjoyable activities such as eating our favourite food, receiving a compliment, having intercourse, or winning a game, our brain sends signals via neurotransmitters. The main neurotransmitter in the reward system is dopamine and when enough of it is released in the brain, we experience pleasure, euphoria, and we feel motivated to do that activity again.

What happens in the brain of a gambler

The same thing happens when drugs are taken. They increase the dopamine that is released in the reward system by up to 10 times more than natural rewarding experiences, which creases the high. Similarly to how substance addicts develop tolerance and need more of the substance to have the same high, a study done in Germany in 2005 shows that problem gamblers also lose sensitivity to the high they get from winning. This makes them bet more often, higher amounts of money, or make riskier bets to feel the same way as they used to.

The reward system is also connected to the prefrontal cortex via neural pathways that weaken when the brain is flooded with dopamine for long periods of time. The prefrontal cortex is located above and behind the eyes and helps people tame impulses. When these pathways are weakened, the gambler has an increasingly hard time controlling their impulse to gamble.

This is backed up by a 2003 study at the Yale University and one conducted in 2012 at the University of Amsterdam. These show that pathological gamblers have unusually low levels of electrical activity in the prefrontal brain regions responsible with risk assessment and instincts suppression.

The psychological factors that make people keep on gambling

Aside from neurochemistry, psychology also plays a big role in gambling addiction. There are five factors that push at-risk gamblers to keep on playing to the point where they become addicted:

  1. Gambler’s fallacy – most gamblers think that with every loss, the chances of winning increase. This is untrue as each turn is a new event with the same winning chances as the previous one;
  2. Partial reinforcement – this refers to when an action or activity does not reward or cause a negative outcome 100% of the time. Gamblers think they have a chance of anywhere between 0% and 100% to win and they are sure that losses are a part of the process which eventually leads to a win. This increases expectation and motivates them to keep gambling;
  3. Illusion of control – many players who prefer table games often deal with this issue. They believe they have some sort of influence over their winning chance, such as the color they pick for a Roulette bet  or the combination of cards they keep in their hand. However, the main driving force of any casino game is luck, which cannot be controlled;
  4. Availability heuristic – this occurs when gamblers overestimate their winning chances because they either saw someone else win big or they recall their last big win. In reality, this does not affect in any way a player’s chance of winning, but they are confident it does;
  5. Loss aversion – studies have shown that people experience a stronger emotional reaction to losses than they do to winnings of the same value. This means that losing C$20 causes a more prominent reaction than winning C$20. Therefore, many gamblers try and chase their losses which eventually leads to even more losses.
The psychological factors that make people keep on gambling

Why only some people become addicted

There are many people who enjoy playing a game of chance now and then because they like the small rush of excitement that comes from the reward element versus the risk. And if they do not win, it still remains a pleasant social activity. But this is for the people who keep this activity as a leisure one and do not go overboard.

One of the things that make gambling addictive is the frequency with which it is done. Someone who gambles from time to time for fun with friends should be safe, in most cases. Meanwhile, someone who engages in this activity on a daily basis will eventually develop an addiction.

However, some people are genetically prone to gambling addiction. The two main genetic predispositions for impulsivity and reward-seeking behaviours are:

  1. A less active prefrontal cortex;
  2. An underactive brain reward system.

While the activity in the prefrontal cortex may be slowed down by gambling itself, some people have just been born this way. Given its function which we have discussed above, these people are prone to make impulse decisions, which makes them more likely to gamble excessively.

Why only some people become addicted

People who are born with an underactive brain reward system will have a hard time experiencing euphoria or pleasure from average experiences. They resort to activities that give them more dopamine in order to feel a satisfactory amount of euphoria. These activities may include taking drugs or compulsively gambling.

Conclusions and references

Gambling addiction works in many ways just as substance addiction and both genetic predispositions and the individual’s own choices lead to this severe problem. Scientists are still researching and trying to better understand how the brain works when it comes to addictions and improve the treatment and therapies recommended nowadays. There has been lots of progress in this area, but, unfortunately, about 80% of gambling addicts never seek treatment. Even worse is that 75% of those who do seek help go back to gambling. Prevention is utterly important and gambling responsibly can help avoid this very serious issue.

The following references have been used in this article:

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