Gambling is a form of risk taking that involves placing something of value on an event with an uncertain outcome, such as a football match or scratchcard. For most people, gambling is a fun pastime that can be enjoyed for social or financial reasons, but for some it becomes an addiction that disrupts their life and those around them. This is known as compulsive gambling or pathological gambling.
There are four main reasons why people gamble. Some do it for social reasons, some do it for money or to escape reality and others do it to feel a rush or ‘high’. It’s important to understand why people gamble so you can make informed decisions, minimize risks and find help if you need it.
Historically, the psychiatric community has viewed pathological gambling as more of a compulsion than an addiction. But in a landmark decision, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has now included gambling disorders among its official diagnoses of mental illness. The move reflects new research in neuroscience and genetics that shows how similar gambling is to drug addiction. The APA’s decision also builds on work that suggests the brain circuits responsible for reward, movement and pleasure become entangled as an addiction develops.
A key reason why gambling is so addictive is that it’s based on uncertainty, whether that’s the size of a jackpot or the probability of winning at all. Uncertainty triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is associated with enjoyable activities such as eating, sex and drugs. For problem gamblers, this anticipation effect may explain why losing money prompts a rush of dopamine just as much as winning does, leading them to keep playing even when they’re clearly at a disadvantage.
In addition, the physical environment of a casino or the immersive nature of an online gaming experience accentuates these feelings. It can be easy to lose track of the amount of money you’re spending or become distracted by flashing lights and loud music.
At RGC, we are dedicated to promoting safer play so that you can enjoy gambling responsibly. We’re here to help you learn more about gambling, get advice on how to change your gambling behaviour or speak to a loved one about their gambling habits, and where to find help if you need it.