Lottery tickets, slot machines, card games, betting, all of these can seemingly be perceived as innocent distractions. But are they really? Scientific evidence says definitely not. Even more so, recent studies suggest that the number of gambling addictions also known as gambling use disorders is on the rise.
First and foremost, specialists debate the connotations behind the actual umbrella these types of games fall under – ‘game of chance’. The theory here is that this suggests excitement, fun, random luck and equally, the opportunity to collectively engage. This is an important point to make before diving into the realms of human brains and how addiction comes about. One of the traits of gambling is uncertainty, regardless if it’s about the size of the win or the simple probability of winning at all. When the reward is uncertain, our brains release dopamine which is the same neurotransmitter released during enjoyable activities and other types of addiction. It’s also the culprit when it comes to risk-taking behaviour reinforcement often observed in gambling.
So, knowing all of this, what does the latest research has to say?
Flashing lights and loud music influences gambling behaviour
A ground-breaking study published in the Journal of Neuroscience has shown that the so-called ‘reward-related stimuli’ cues can have a major impact in promoting risky behaviours. The hallmarks of casinos – flashing lights and sounds appear to encourage more risk taking in gambling despite the odds and this might be one of the reasons why gamblers continue playing even when they are fully aware of the almost non-existent chances of winning. These sensory cues also affect attention making the entire experience even more confusing and hard to leave.
Missing by a whisker motivates more than losing
Another interesting finding came from looking at the differences between almost winning and losing and the effects it has on people. Science suggests that near-misses are significantly more arousing and enticing than complete losses, in spite of the fact that they are much more frustrating. Crucially, it seems missing by just a whisker triggers a major urge to play – even more than winning itself! In such situations, the player’s motivation is increased, and this translates into a deep commitment which is a pathway to addiction.
Gambling addiction hand in hand with mental health issues and substance abuse
A research into the “The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry” is confirming suspicions: various types of addiction and mental health conditions form a vicious and life-threatening circle. The study found that 73 per cent of the pathological gamblers observed were abusing alcohol, 38 per cent were abusing drugs and 60 per cent had a nicotine dependence. On the other hand, almost half (49.6 per cent) had one or multiple mood disorders, 41
Gambling addiction seems to be an independent risk factor for suicide
A 2018 study conducted on 2,099 individuals with a diagnosis of gambling addiction hypothesized that not only suicide rates, which were previously demonstrated, but also general mortality would be increased for these individuals. Their findings confirmed that: substantially elevated rates of mortality and suicide were registered among those with a gambling disorder. Suicide was recorded to being the leading cause of death and results indicated elevated risks of both suicide and premature death in this group. Even more worrisome, young people seemed to be most at risk.
More left to learn about problematic gambling treatment
Gambling addiction treatment in the U.S. and North America is approached with the same disease model as alcoholism and drug abuse. It is a generally accepted fact that up to 90 percent of those entering addiction recovery treatment will relapse during the first year post-treatment, but does this apply to gambling addiction? There is no data to back this up either. The condition can be addressed by conventional methods including talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, or medications that help overcome cravings.
We are just beginning to uncover what influences the transition from recreational gambling to abusive behaviour and there is still more work that needs to be done. Although treatments have been available for decades, there is growing evidence showing that a gambling addiction is not the same as a drug addiction and different intervention strategies are needed.
Gambling addiction can have a shattering impact not just on patients, but also their families and loved ones. It can lead to people losing their jobs, diseases, leaving families and children homeless.