Causes of Excessive Gambling

What causes someone to gamble excessively?

Different models have tried to explain why certain people may come to gamble excessively.

Certain models emphasise the role played by learning. When a person plays and wins, they learn that such behaviour (playing) is followed by a positive outcome (winning money). This phenomenon is called positive reinforcement. Within gambling and games of chance the gains are occasional and unpredictable. In such circumstances a phenomenon called intermittent reinforcement is occurring. Neuroscience research has confirmed that people are likely to repeat the behaviour if intermittent reinforcement is received. This is done even if the consequences are only occasionally positive. For gambling, this means that the player will continue to play in the hopes of winning, despite the fact that the losses are more significant than the gains! It is well evidenced that many people who have developed a gambling problem have reported winning a significant amount at the beginning of their gambling "career". This experience appears to remain strongly within their memories, feeding the belief that they could win again.

Other models explain excessive gambling as a behaviour arising from the player`s maladaptive belief system. The player holds unhelpful beliefs about the game and their ability to influence the outcome. These beliefs reinforce the hopes of winning and therefore increase gambling behaviour. In gambling, it is important to hold in mind two basic principles. Firstly, the likelihood of losing money: statistically the player will lose money in the long-term, as they play on in order to recuperate any losses. Conversely, the gaming industry who organise the probability of winning, will always win in the long-term. Secondly, the principle of independence of events: The fundamental mistake committed is to rely on previous events to predict the outcome of the game. There is no link between different events and each game played is independent, thus it is impossible to predict the outcome based on knowledge of previous bets.  The player`s maladaptive beliefs contradict these fundamental principles. For example, players often think that the more they play, the greater chance they have of winning. Similarly, if they have already won, there is a greater or lesser chance of a further win.

Other models suggest that there is a biological basis to problematic gambling. Indeed, it is proposed that there is a biological basis for all dependence problems. The mechanism involved is called the reward circuit and involves the release of dopamine; a neurotransmitter involved in reward and reinforcement.  According to these models, people dealing with gambling problems experience a deregulation in their dopaminergic system, which causes a feeling of tension. Gambling is therefore a means of regulating the level of dopamine, in order to temporarily reduce the tension.

Many professionals currently believe there are multiple causes for excessive gambling. These may include biological, psychological and social factors.

bandeau bottom CJE - Centre du jeu excessif UNIGE - Université de Genève IMSP - Institut de Médecine Sociale et Préventive CHUV - Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois

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