From using slot machines in the casino to buying a simple lottery ticket, gambling is all around us in modern day society. For many, it is an innocent thing to do.
You can try your luck at chance-based gambling, such as purchasing a scratch card or playing bingo in the hope of getting richer. Or, you can try your hand at skill-based gambling, like playing poker or betting on horse races.
A game of chance is something most people try occasionally. The thrill of having the possibility of striking it rich is exciting.
Risk vs reward – you may not win but more often than not, people enjoy trying their hand and hoping they come out on the winning end.
However, as with many experiences that make us feel excited and good, including drinking alcohol (see also “Can You Bring Your Own Alcohol In The Casino?“), eating, and shopping, you can easily go overboard with gambling.
What starts off as a bit of occasional fun can become a habit. This habit can grow into a real problem, becoming a mental dependence for an individual.
This is when gambling has become an addiction.
But, why do so many people love gambling and why is it addictive? To find out more, we explored the world of gambling and what makes it such an addictive activity.
Understanding this better may help individuals overcome a dependence on chance, something that can tear lives apart.
Why Is Gambling So Addictive?
Ask around about why people love to gamble and you’ll probably be met with a similar answer, “people just love to make money and winning.” However, it isn’t quite as simple as this.
When gambling becomes an addiction, it changes brain chemistry. An excessive amount of gambling can lead to significant changes in how the brain sends messages.
For many gamblers, they may have psychological or genetic dispositions that make them more likely to gamble more and become addicted.
Before someone even starts to gamble, they are more likely to suffer from addiction once they do it even once.
The brain can become conditioned into craving more gambling. It’s like a reward system. The more you do it, the more chances you have at winning. But, of course, this also means there are higher chances of losing.
It can get to a point where the brain’s wiring can alter dramatically. To return to its state before addiction sets in, it would take months, even years to try and recover.
And for most gambling addicts, they will never fully recover. Like other addicts, such as alcoholics, they will always be in recovery.
What Changes Occur In The Brain When?
To understand an addiction to gambling, we need to understand how the brain works when we practice activities we enjoy. Humans love to be rewarded.
It is, after all, part of being human. Our brains have circuits that fuel our reward system. These circuits are connected to numerous regions of the brain, in particular motivation and pleasure centers.
As soon as we feel rewarded, our brains will send signals via neurotransmitters. These are chemical messages that can stimulate different neurons in the brain.
When something negative comes our way, these chemical messages can also depress neurons in the brain. So, whether we receive a compliment, accomplish a task, or win a game, our brain will give us a sense of reward.
The key neurotransmitter in this whole reward system is dopamine. When a certain amount of this is released due to stimulation, such as something we have enjoyed doing, then we will feel euphoric.
This pleasurable feeling will motivate us to repeat the same activity in the future so we feel that “high” again.
For instance, drug taking is a primary example of dopamine working hard. Certain drugs create a high that increases dopamine, sometimes ten times as much as a usual rewarding experience would produce.
Therefore, this feeling of pleasure is like no other, so people want to experience it again and again.
This applies to gambling, too.
Studies have found that “gambling addiction activates the same brain pathways as drug and alcohol cravings.” The brain’s reward system reacts similarly to when people are on drugs. Why?
The increased release of dopamine. Win once at gambling and you will experience a high. Therefore, you will want to repeat this feeling and hopefully win again. Over time, this can become an addiction.
Factors That Increase The Risk of Someone Becoming A Gambling Addict
For most individuals, it is easy to play a few rounds of poker or put a few coins in the slot machine and walk away. The fun has been had and that was it. But, for many others, this is not possible.
These individuals can’t step away and want to play over and over again. But, there may be several factors at force for people who become gambling addicts (see also “Which Types Of Gambling Are The Most Addictive?“).
Some key reasons why someone may be more prone to becoming an gambling addict are:
- They are more inherently prone to it
- Gambling becomes part of their lives or their “new normal”
- They build up a tolerance to it
- Numerous psychological factors are at play
As we mentioned above, some people may inherit genetic predispositions that make them more likely to become addicted to gambling. This can be in the form of an underactive brain reward system or a decreased activation of the prefrontal cortex.
Some gamblers gamble to stave off depression and withdrawal symptoms. But, over time, excessive gambling means they no longer feel that euphoria and it becomes their new normal.
This leads to the fact that they have built up a tolerance to gambling. The brain gets used to the activity and becomes less stimulated than it was before.
Understanding why people enjoy gambling so much and why it can be addictive is complicated. On the surface, it can be easy to say that people like to win money and the chance of doing so is why gambling is enjoyable.
But, when it comes to addiction, there are many factors that come into play, making it a complex issue, particularly in neurological terms.