The psychology of gambling

Posted on November 8, 2016

Gambling has been a popular source of entertainment for many centuries and across many cultures. With current changes in gambling legislation in the UK, its popularity looks set to continue. New casinos are to be established, including a large 'super-casino', and novel forms of gambling like internet gambling and electronic gaming machines are flourishing. Some argue these changes are a good thing: gambling is a recreational activity enjoyed by around 70% of the British public at least annually, and the gambling industry is a useful source of taxable revenue.

But all this comes at a cost - for a minority of individuals, gambling is a spiralling habit that they become unable to control. Problem (or 'pathological') gambling is a recognised psychiatric diagnosis present in around 1% of the population. These prevalence rates are higher in local communities around gambling facilities, and clinicians are concerned that the relaxation of British legislation will increase the incidence of problem gambling in years to come.

Dr Luke Clark, in the Department of Experimental Psychology, is interested in the different ways in which gamblers over-estimate their chances of winning, including the effects of near-misses and personal choice. These features of gambling games promote an 'illusion of control': the belief that the gambler can exert skill over an outcome that is actually defined by chance.

Both near-misses and personal choice cause gamblers to play for longer and to place larger bets. Over time, these distorted perceptions of one's chances of winning may precipitate 'loss chasing', where gamblers continue to play in an effort to recoup accumulating debts. Loss chasing is one of the hallmarks of problem gambling, which actually bears much resemblance to drug addiction. Problem gamblers also experience cravings and symptoms of withdrawal when denied the opportunity to gamble.

In addition to an array of psychological factors, problem gambling may also have some important biological determinants. The brain chemical dopamine is known to play a key role in drug addiction and may also be abnormally regulated in problem gambling. Patients with Parkinson's disease, who show degeneration of dopamine cells, can sometimes show a sudden interest in gambling, linked to their use of medications that increase dopamine transmission. Other systems in the brain are also critical, particularly the part of the frontal lobes immediately above the eye sockets, known as the orbitofrontal cortex.

By further understanding the breakdown of self-control in gamblers, this programme of research carries important implications for the treatment of problem gambling, using both pharmacological and psychological therapies. Moreover, the development of objective tasks of gambling will provide more valid outcome measures for assessing the effectiveness of new treatments. By understanding how subtle features of gambling games, like near-misses and personal choice, are linked to the addictiveness of these games, future changes in gambling legislation may be in a better position to protect vulnerable individuals.

To read the full article, click on the link below.

Category(s):Gambling Addiction

Source material from University of Cambridge

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