Gambling Addiction

Many people consider national lottery draws and sports betting socially accepted behaviours. However, these fall under the types of activities that contribute to the development of gambling addiction. The Gambling Commission reported that by March 2022, 43% of the British population had gambled at least once that year. Gambling addiction can be very harmful to individuals and contributes to their employment, financial and psychological difficulties.

Gambling Addiction Gambling Addiction

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Table of contents
    • We are going to explore the world of gambling addiction. First, we will examine the effects that gambling addiction presents.
    • Next, we will review the symptoms associated with a gambling addiction.
    • Among the explanations of gambling addiction, we will discuss the social learning theory and the cognitive explanation of gambling addiction.
    • We will present the four stages of gambling under gambling addiction facts.
    • And lastly, we will review gambling addiction treatment.

    Gambling Addiction, two red dice hovering in the air, StudySmarterFig. 1: Gambling addiction can cause significant financial difficulty for people.

    Gambling Addiction

    Gambling addiction can affect a person's life in many ways, from causing financial difficulties to providing emotional highs and lows.

    Gambling addiction - also called pathological or compulsive gambling - is a psychological disorder characterised by being chronic and maladaptive.

    Gambling addiction is a disorder in which the individual suffering from it plays games of chance to the point in which their financial, personal and professional situations present difficulties.

    Gambling Addiction Effects

    Several dangers usually accompany gambling addiction. These characteristics that gamblers present are especially relevant for gamblers' families and friends so they can detect the problem and act upon it.

    • According to the UK Government's Gambling-related harm report (2021), the effects of addiction can be suffered by individuals as well as by societies. After reviewing 53 research studies, they identified that gamblers present increased rates of unemployment, as well as bankruptcy. Furthermore, the report identified a trend in research that suggests that gamblers were more likely to commit crimes than non-gamblers.
    • Although some studies suggested that gamblers had an increased risk of developing alcohol and drug dependencies and generally experience poorer mental and physical well-being, the report suggests that the evidence presented mixed results.

    Gamblers' social environment can see changes in gamblers emotional availability. Gamblers can be emotionally distant or unavailable to the people around them.

    Gambling Addiction Symptoms

    Pathological gambling was first introduced as a mental disorder in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1980. In the latest version of the DSM, an individual would receive a positive diagnosis for gambling in the presence of four or more of the following symptoms:

    1. Needs to gamble with increasing amounts of money to achieve the desired excitement.
    2. Is restless or irritable when attempting to cut down or stop gambling.
    3. Has repeatedly failed to control, cut back, or stop gambling.
    4. Is often preoccupied with gambling (e.g., having persistent thoughts of reliving past gambling experiences, handicapping or planning the next venture, thinking of ways to get money with which to gamble).
    5. Often gambles when feeling distressed (e.g., helpless, guilty, anxious, depressed).
    6. After losing money gambling, one often returns another day to get even (“chasing” one’s losses).
    7. Lies to conceal the extent of involvement with gambling.
    8. Has jeopardised or lost a significant relationship, job, or educational or career opportunity because of gambling.
    9. Relies on others to provide money to relieve desperate financial situations caused by gambling." (Page 585)1

    These symptoms must be present for at least 12 months for a diagnosis to be positive. Gambling behaviour is also not better explained by a manic episode.

    A pathological gambling diagnosis is present in three formats; mild, moderate or severe. A semi-structured interview also accompanies the gambling diagnosis. By revising the diagnostic criteria and the semi-structured interview, experts can understand the gamblers' circumstances. This becomes especially relevant when the expert reviews and chooses among the different treatment options.

    Addiction, Gambling Addiction, Example of games that can lead to gambling addiction, StudySmarter.Fig 2: Example of activities and fortune games that can lead to gambling addiction.

    Explanations for Gambling Addiction

    Several explanations explore gambling addiction, including the behaviourist explanation, which explores social learning theory and classical and operant conditioning, and the cognitive explanation of gambling.

    Behaviourist Explanations of Gambling Addiction

    From a behaviourist approach, gambling problems are explained based on the social learning theory, classical conditioning and operant conditioning (reinforcement).

    Social Learning Theory

    Social learning theory suggests that gambling problems occur because an individual learns gambling behaviours from their environment. By observing family and friends (role models) engaging in gambling and experiencing positive behaviours linked to gambling, individuals decide to engage in such behaviours themselves.

    Social learning theory understands human behaviour as a consequence of the social nature of humans. It is part of the human condition to have role models - in this case, family and friends, and even celebrities - and to imitate their behaviours.

    Evaluation of the social learning theory explaining gambling addiction:

    • Social learning theory can be criticised for only explaining gambling addiction partly.
    • The theory provides good insight into why a person will start engaging in gambling e.g seeing people in the social context engage in it.
    • The theory, however, fails to explain why individuals keep engaging in the behaviour over time and develop an addiction to it.
    • Furthermore, the theory fails to distinguish between gambling and pathological gambling. Many people engage in gambling at a given point throughout their lives but do not develop a dependency, and this is not explained by the social learning theory.

    Classical Conditioning

    Classical conditioning explains gambling behaviour through conditioning a person experiences when they gamble. The unconditioned stimulus of gambling and winning and the unconditioned response of increased excitement become a conditioned stimulus whenever the person is around gambling-associated activities.

    Operant conditioning

    Operant conditioning explains learned behaviour as the association between such behaviours and certain consequences, named reinforcements. According to operant conditioning, gambling behaviour is maintained by a positive or a negative reinforcer.

    In operant conditioning, a reinforcer is an event or circumstance that either, in its presence or absence, makes a given behaviour more likely to be repeated, due to its association with a given response.

    A positive reinforcer would be winning money by gambling, and a negative reinforcer would be being able to escape the stress in life by engaging in gambling and feeling the highs of gambling.

    Regarding gambling, operant conditioning becomes slightly more complex, and the reinforcers are either partial or variable.

    • A partial reinforcer is when the situation occurs on certain occasions and not others. In gambling, a person may not win every time but wins sometimes. Therefore, the individual is always waiting for the next time they will win. The partial reinforcer makes the individual understand that they are a step closer to the next win every time they do not win.
    • A variable reinforcer is a type of partial reinforcer where the behaviours do not occur in a fixed manner but in a varying one instead. Gambling machines are programmed so that a win comes after an unpredictable amount of attempts. The win's unpredictability makes individuals repeat the behaviours over time, as the next go could be the next win.

    Evaluation of the operant conditioning theory explaining gambling addiction:

    • One of the main criticism of this explanation is that operant conditioning fails to explain gambling addiction, given that individuals lose more times than they win. Given that losing can be perceived as a punishment, gambling behaviour should diminish over time rather than create addiction.
    • Contrarily to the social-learning theory, operant conditioning offers a more sophisticated explanation of how individuals become addicts but fails to explain why individuals get started in gambling in the first place.

    Cognitive Explanations of Gambling Addiction

    There are cognitive explanations for gambling addiction. Cognitive explanations explore cognitive biases in gambling.

    Cognitive Bias and Irrational Expectations.

    The cognitive theory explains gambling in irrational and maladaptive thought processes.

    Cognitive biases are thinking patterns that produce distorted perceptions of reality.

    According to this view, gamblers present cognitive biases, contributing to gambling addiction development.

    These are the most common cognitive biases in gamblers:

    • The illusion of control: Refers to a gambler's belief that they have more control over the outcome of gambling than is the case, usually because they believe they are 'skilled', and will therefore win more when in reality, the games are still, and always have been, dictated by chance.
    • Outcome bias: Refers to gamblers' lack of finding value in the decision-making or reasoning process and, contrarily, finding value in the outcome of the process. A gambler playing blackjack, for example, may have played advocating for their reasoning. Although their decision was rational, if the outcome was not desired, the experience may be perceived negatively.
    • Confirmation bias: This bias can be observed in betting. When betting, gamblers look for evidence in favour of their initial guesses, making them ignore or not be aware of the evidence that may have suggested not to bet on such an option.
    • Recency bias: Refers to gamblers' belief that if they recently won, they can win again. This thinking also applies in betting because if a team recently won a game, gamblers believe the team will most likely win again. In reality, the results are more independent than this bias suggests.
    • The Gambler's fallacy: This cognitive bias describes gamblers' belief that an event is less likely to occur in the future if it has already happened more than usual. For example, a gambler playing poker may believe they will get a set of aces because there has not been a set of aces in the last few games for a while.

    Michealczuk et al. (2011) compared the cognitive distortions of two groups of individuals - gamblers and non-gamblers - as they all played a chance game.

    Their results indicated that gamblers had a stronger sense of control over the game than non-gamblers. Furthermore, the cognitive bias in gamblers was more extensive than that of non-gamblers.

    Evaluation of the cognitive explanation of gambling addiction:

    • There is a great deal of research supporting the cognitive explanation of gambling addiction. Delfabbro and Winefield (1999) conducted a study in which they asked regular and occasional gamblers to rate how confident they were they would receive a reward every time they played a fruit machine. Their results suggested that regular players had less varying views about their winning and were more likely to increase their vets when they won, and to decrease them if they lost.
    • The cognitive approach to explaining gambling addiction has been criticised for being reductionist. The theory does not account for gamblers' social environment or personal characteristics (individual differences), e.g., individuals may start gambling because they experience financial difficulties.
    • Taking all explanations together, it seems that a holistic view, in which cognitive factors, social factors and physiological factors need to be combined in the efforts of explaining gambling.

    Gambling Addiction Facts

    According to the Illinois Insitute for Addiction Recovery, gambling problems develop in four stages.

    PhaseDescription
    Winning phaseThe individual engaging in gambling for the first time usually gets a big win which brings joy and excitement. At this stage, individuals may believe that since they did it once, they can do it again and, thus, continue gambling.
    Losing phaseA losing streak occurs, typically after the initial winning streak which sparked addiction. The more individuals immerse themselves in gambling, the more detached they become from their families, friends, jobs, and responsibilities. At this point, the gambler is usually losing money but has the hope that this will change.
    Desperation phaseAt this point, the individual is lost in gambling behaviour and cannot stop, doubling down in an attempt to win once more. The individual may be engaging in other fraudulent activities in an attempt to make money to fuel their addiction, in extreme cases. Mental health begins to decline.
    Hopeless phaseThis is the most critical phase in gambling. At this point, individuals are no longer optimistic about their futures. They think they will never be able to stop gambling and debts are beginning to become a significant problem. They may rely on other substances such as alcohol and can even present suicidal thoughts.

    Treatment for Gambling Addiction

    The treatment options for gambling include:


    Gambling Addiction - Key takeaways

    • Addiction is characterised by psychological or physical dependence, involving tolerance and withdrawal symptoms. Gambling addiction is a disorder in which the individual plays games of chance to the point in which their financial, personal and professional situations present difficulties.
    • Behaviourist approaches explain gambling addiction through social learning theory, classical conditioning and operant conditioning.
    • The cognitive theory explains gambling addiction in terms of cognitive biases, examples including the gambler's fallacy and an illusion of control (Wagenaar 1988).
    • The four stages in gambling are the winning phase, the losing phase, the desperation phase and the hopeless phase.
    • Treatment for gambling addiction varies and can be approached from a biological perspective (drug therapies), and a psychological perspective (therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy).

    References

    1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi-org.ezproxy.frederick.edu/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596
    Frequently Asked Questions about Gambling Addiction

    What causes gambling addiction?

    According to psychologists, there are a variety of causes that may explain gambling addiction. From a psychological perspective, cognitive biases affect a gambler's decisions, possibly leading to addiction. Other explanations include social learning theory (vicarious reinforcement), classical conditioning (conditioned stimulus), and operant conditioning (reinforcement).

    What factors influence gambling behaviour?

    Learning theory explains gambling through reinforcement. It states that gambling is reinforced through the positive outcomes of winning and the negative reinforcement of avoiding stress. Partial and variable reinforcement also explain gambling by stating that although the gambler won’t win every time, they learn that they will eventually win, leading them to keep gambling.

    Is compulsive gambling a mental illness?

    Yes, according to the DSM-5, gambling disorder (gambling addiction or compulsive gambling) is a mental illness.

    What personality type are gamblers?

    There is no one personality type for gamblers. Some personality traits common to gamblers include controllingness, narcissism, and persistence. 

    How do I stop my gambling addiction?

    You should consult with a professional. Different treatments may work better for some than others but learning theory advises aversion therapy. In contrast, cognitive theory uses cognitive behavioural therapy to treat addiction.

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    Team Gambling Addiction Teachers

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