What Makes Gambling So Addictive?

Recently there has been a steep rise in the amount of gambling advertisements on all types of media. While many claim not to be “gambling” sites (not exactly sure how they’re able to justify this; even if no actual money is being transmitted the randomness of the games is gambling for our brains) and all of them have a “consume responsibility” disclaimer, nevertheless we are being exposed to this messaging and it has an impact.

The reality is that it is very difficult to consume moderately or safely based on how gambling works in our brain. For us to understand this, let us take a dive into some fundamental psychological principles…

Humans learn through a process called reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is where we have the removal of something unpleasant in order to motivate us to change. For example, someone does a chore to get their loved one to stop nagging. Positive reinforcement is where we are provided something pleasant that encourages a behaviour to continue. For example, we receive money for doing a chore or task. The desirable stimulus (in this case, the money) is presented right after the behaviour and makes it more likely that the behaviour will occur again. Gambling is particularly dangerous (if you look at it from a health perspective)/interesting (if you look at it from a human learning perspective) because it can employ both negative and positive reinforcement. People may be turning to gambling to alleviate boredom, sadness, worry, or some kind of pain that gets removed when they are focused on the game that they are playing. At the same time, the possibility of financial reward, competition, and “beating the system” can be positive reinforcement.

You are starting to get a picture of why gambling has such a strong impact on our brain and can lead to impulsive, compulsive behaviour that can result in people losing their homes, families, and livelihoods as they get deeper and deeper into the gambling web. To make it even more understandable why gambling is so addictive, let us also learn about how gambling works using intermittent reinforcement.

With the types of reinforcement (positive and negative) described above, their effectiveness will vary depending on how often the positive or adverse stimuli are added or removed. For instance, if I get predictable reinforcement every time I do something, this is okay, and same thing if I get reinforcement every second, third, fourth, etc. time but not every time I do something. The brain is okay with this and behaviours will be somewhat reinforced but, interestingly, if I get unpredictable reinforcement (it can occur every second, eighth, twentieth) time and I have no idea when the reinforcement is going to come, this is where the mind altering explosion happens. Intermittent reinforcement is the most addictive for our brains. Just like mice who will literally die as they try to reinforce themselves with a substance that they have no idea when they’re going to get it but they know they want it, we are those mice who will keep going and going, no matter what the consequences, until we get that win which is the hit. Once you learn more about reinforcement and learning, it is actually a miracle, in my opinion, that people can ever tear themselves away and stop a gambling session rather than boggling that they can get so lost in it.

Addiction is built into the genetics of all groups on the planet; none seem to be immune. Socially some addictive behaviours are more available, encouraged and acceptable than others. In North America, alcohol, drugs, sex, and eating disorders take top spots with gambling being in there but not as much of an issue. In other societies, like Asia where these substances are less used and not as available, gambling is a widely available and accessed ‘drug’ that people are struggling with Addiction around.

Moving away from gambling addiction is no easy feat and requires many things, which may include:

  • Physical boundaries around casinos, websites, and money to reduce exposure and access
  • The non-judgmental support of people and loved ones
  • Professional support
  • Exploring other ways to take care of one’s self and deal with the pain, boredom, financial insecurity and other triggers that led to the behaviour
  • Connection
  • Healthy purpose and focus
  • Understanding of the brain and behaviour
  • Understanding of and reduction of triggers

As you can see, it makes sense why gambling is so addictive and casinos and app developers know this and employ the principles we discussed here to capitalize on and exploit this vulnerability that we all have within our brains. Some are going to be more vulnerable to gambling addiction than others based on their genetic heritage, environment, exposure and other factors like their current mental health, resilience, and stress coping. As so many people have many of these loading factors, the increase in advertising targeting these behaviours is even more concerning.

If you are struggling with compulsive behaviour around gambling, we would encourage you to explore self and professional help in your area. This can often be accessed through local helplines, physicians and healthcare providers.

Sana Psychological is a counselling agency located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. We are a group of Registered and Provisional Psychologists and Canadian Certified Counsellors who provide individual support to those struggling with gambling issues. We understand what a scary, isolating, and overwhelming place this can be and want to reassure you that you are not alone. If you think that we would be an appropriate resource to help you in your journey, please do not hesitate to reach out. We are able to support those in Calgary for in person sessions, and those in Alberta and Canada virtually. If you are located elsewhere in the world, we encourage you to find providers in your area that could support you. Recovery is possible and not something you need to do alone.