Gambling Psychology: Understanding How a Gambler's Mind Works

Jun 03

Nearly three-quarters of the British population engage in some form of gambling. This is true despite the fact that most people know that regardless of what kind of betting game they play, the odds will be heavily stacked against them. It would seem like common sense that knowing they’re not likely to win would deter people from gambling, so why doesn’t it? Why do many people still choose to gamble? And why do so many get addicted to gambling? Let’s find out.

Reasons for Gambling

The answers to the question of why people gamble lie in the way our brain works. Here are some of the most common reasons why many people choose to engage in gambling activities despite (or maybe even because of) the knowledge that the odds are stacked against them:

Risk Taking

It’s natural for us to feel a great deal of excitement whenever we realise that what we are doing involves a certain amount of risk. This is why gambling of any kind is always considered an exciting activity. Thoughts like, “Will I get a winning hand?” when playing poker, or “Will I hit the jackpot?” when playing the slots give us a sense of anticipation. And this anticipation creates an adrenalin rush and the kind of high similar to what people experience when they do drugs, except the one you get from gambling is a natural high.

There are people who think they cannot live without experiencing this natural high from time to time. And some of these people are, unfortunately, unaware that there are different ways to get the same experience. They associate the experience and the positive feeling with gambling and they think they will only ever get that feeling when they gamble.

Socialisation

Gambling is already accepted as part of the global culture, and many people also see it as a form of entertainment, which is why it is widely participated in. almost everyone has engaged in some form of gambling at some point in their lives. As children, we were most likely introduced to gambling by being taught some simple card games by our parents, relatives, or older siblings. Of course, those card games were probably nothing more than good, clean fun at the time; perhaps some of them didn’t even involve wagers.

As we grew older, perhaps we started playing those card games with small wagers, and maybe even started learning other “innocent” gambling games like bingo and arcade games. Maybe you don’t even think of these games as gambling, and when, as an adult, you get asked if you’ve ever gambled, you’d probably say no if you’ve never been inside a casino or browsed a gambling website. But whether you like it or not, you most likely have engaged in some form of gambling at least once before.

Escapism

The gambling environment can offer an escape from our everyday stresses, albeit temporary. The glitz and bustle of a casino, the noise of an arcade, and even the graphics and sounds of a gambling website provides an experience that is often completely different from our usual environment. It can therefore be a welcome respite from a highly stressful routine.

If your regular day at work is one that involves a lot of planning, decision-making, and problem-solving, the fun of gambling can be a breath of fresh air. And if your personal life is no better than your work routine in terms of the amount of stress it places on you, then the gambling environment can be all the more attractive, since the gambling experience mostly comes with positive feelings, whether you win or lose.

Glamour

Betting games and gambling venues are typically portrayed as stylish, fashionable, cool, and even sexy. There are two main reasons for this: First, casino owners and betting operators know that making their games and venues as attractive as possible is key to getting more customers. Second, advertising agencies understand the psychology of gambling and they are a significant part of the industry’s continued success.

Whenever gambling is portrayed on TV and in movies, it almost always shows the rich and famous enjoying an afternoon at the races or a night at the gambling tables. Sometimes it also portrays ordinary folk getting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rub elbows with the rich and famous at a popular casino. This is something most people can relate to, and is perhaps what attracts them most to the gambling experience.

The four reasons mentioned above can come together and take control of a person’s psyche, which is how a regular gambler is born. But there can also be a fifth and underlying reason why a person starts getting reeled into the world of gambling. This underlying reason is the incorrect perception that gambling is a low-risk, high-yield activity. If you don’t want to become addicted to gambling, you have to always bear in mind that the odds will always favour the house.

How a Gambler Gets Hooked

Now we know the reasons why a person may choose to gamble from time to time, but how does one become a regular gambler? How do you get hooked into gambling? How, or why, does gambling become a habit that some people can’t break? Research on gambling behaviour and psychological processes has this to say:

A good mood usually leads to increased gambling.

As you slide money into a slot machine, push chips forward to bet on a betting table, or place your bets in an online casino, your brain releases the chemicals dopamine and serotonin. Both of these chemicals are “feel good” chemicals, which is why you feel excitement and hope, regardless of the result of your wager. The mere act of pulling a slot machine lever or clicking buttons in an online casino can bring a rush of excitement.

A recent study has found that a positive mood is directly proportional to the amount of gambling you are likely to engage in. Therefore, the better you feel in a betting environment, the likelier you are to keep on gambling. A positive mood is also seen to make people more open to taking risks, which kind of explains why you would likely gamble more once the exciting atmosphere of a casino has gotten to you.

Many people are lured into believing the gambler’s fallacy.

You’re playing roulette, and black numbers have come up nine consecutive times. If you’re like most gamblers, this would most likely be the moment you’d bet all (or most, if you’re the cautious type) your money on red. This typical behaviour is the result of what has come to be known as the gambler’s fallacy.

Many gamblers hold the belief that when something has already happened repeatedly, something else is bound to happen. That is why most gamblers would bet on red if black numbers have come up several times in a row. The problem is that this belief couldn’t be farther from the truth. The truth is that the odds of black numbers coming up is always the same as the odds of red numbers coming up.

The bandwagon effect can also be seen in gambling.

Have you ever noticed that when the lottery jackpot reaches unprecedented levels, it usually gets highlighted in the media, and then people scramble to buy tickets. No one wants to miss out on the chance to win big. In some cases, even people who’ve never played the lottery before decide to jump on the bandwagon and buy tickets for the first time.

The bandwagon effect doesn’t just happen in regard to lotteries. The same phenomenon occurs when someone wins a huge jackpot playing the slots and it gets publicised. All of a sudden, everyone wants a shot at that jackpot. And once a person has tasted even the smallest win, that person begins to think it’s just a matter of time before before he/she, too, hits the jackpot.

Many gamblers hold some superstitious beliefs about the gambling system.

The very definition of gambling cites it as having to do with random events. Betting games are mostly games of luck. Despite this fact, many gamblers still believe that they can somehow create a system that will stack the odds in their favour. Some of these so-called systems involve trying to predict number patterns. Others go for machines that haven’t paid out for some time, thinking it’s “due” for a win.

There are also people who mix superstition with their so-called systems. Some of them tap slot machines with lucky charms and/or talismans. Others perform some sort of ritual before they start playing. And when they land a significant win, they tend to think it was all because of their rituals and their system.

Well, here’s the deal: Betting houses have systems, too, and most of the time, they’re way better than yours. Gambling establishments typically use psychological tricks such as flashing lights and the sound of clinking coins to make your brain think constantly about winning. These tricks, coupled with your unfounded belief in you so-called system, are sure to hook you into the gambling habit.

Gamblers usually change their expectations with regard to winning.

A study had bettors estimate the odds that their chosen horse would win a race. The study revealed that there was a difference in how people perceived their odds before they place their bets and after they’ve placed their bets. Gamblers generally had more faith that their favoured horse would win after they’ve made their wager than before the bet was placed.

As their belief in their chosen horse’s chances of winning increased, the gamblers became more hopeful. As mentioned before, positive feelings like hope often lead to a greater tendency to take risks, therefore increasing the possibility of a person gambling even more.

Gambling as an Addiction

There was a time when problem gambling was not seen as an addiction. Rather, the psychiatric community classified gambling as a compulsion. This means gambling was previously seen as a behaviour brought about by a desire to relieve anxiety rather than one that is motivated by a craving for pleasure. It was considered to be more closely related to kleptomania and trichotillomania than alcoholism and drug dependence.

In recent years, however, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) officially re-classified problem gambling, in what has since come to be known as a landmark decision. Pathological gambling is now classified as an addiction. The Association reached the decision after 15 years of deliberation, which gave them a much better understanding of the psychology behind gambling. This development also led to a change in the manner with which psychiatrists assist people who find it almost impossible to stop gambling.

This re-classification and clearer understanding of how a gambler’s mind works couldn’t have come at a better time. Proper treatment of gambling addiction has become increasingly necessary, especially since betting games have become so much more available, accessible, and acceptable in recent years. And now we don’t even have to leave the house to do some gambling. All you need to do is log onto an online casino or download a betting app, and you’re all set.

The APA’s 15-year study, which led to the landmark decision, clearly showed that there are far more similarities between gambling and drug addiction than they had previously realised. Neuroscientists are now better able to see how the human brain changes as an addiction develops, and this is how they can now tell that pathological gambling and drug addiction are two of a kind.

Their research showed that there is a series of circuits in the middle of our cranium, which they dubbed as our brain’s reward system. This system links the regions of our brain that are involved in movement, memory, motivation, and pleasure. This is a part of our brains that releases dopamine, and the researchers found that similar levels of dopamine were released when a person gambles and when he is stimulated by addictive drugs.

This is good news, in a way, because scientists have also found that gambling addicts respond well to the same medications and therapy used for drug addiction. Cognitive-behaviour therapy has been specified as a particularly effective treatment method for gambling addiction, as it teaches people to resist addictive habits and tempting thoughts. Of course, the most important thing is still for the addict himself to acknowledge the addiction and seek help. Otherwise, no amount of research and treatment will matter.