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The Psychology of Gambling

The psychology of gambling is a complicated field of study. Gamblers’ motivations vary wildly when they enter a casino. The dichotomy between healthy and unhealthy gamblers is particularly stark, so any study of bettors’ mentality requires analysis of both categories of gamblers. 

Over the past 20 years, several research teams have conducted scientific research on casino gamblers. Using behavioral and neurological analysis, these researchers have isolated certain thought processes that lead to problem behavior. These studies, especially those conducted by Dr. Marc Potenza of the Yale School of Medicine, have led to a consensus on the mental processes of pathological gamblers. 

To look at the psychology of gambling, several basic questions must be answered. In this article, we’ll touch on each of the following subjects.

Questions to Answer on the Psychology of Gambling

  • Why do people gamble? What’s gamblers’ motivation? 
  • Is there any scientific data or research on the psychology of gambling?
  • When does gambling become a problem?

Reasons People Gamble

People gamble for a lot of reasons. The vast bulk of people are social gamblers, meaning they play for a while, then walk away from the gaming area with no compulsion and no distress. Before one studies the problem gambler’s mind, it’s best to look at a healthy gambler’s motivations. This serves as a baseline to compare problem behavior with healthy behavior while giving perspective to the reason casino gambling exists at all.

The American Gaming Association (AGA) estimates 90% of gamblers practice responsible gaming and never have compulsions about gambling. These people typically are called recreational gamblers. Here are the reasons why healthy bettors play casino games:

  • Enjoyment: Playing games like real money slots is fun for many people. Playing games for money is entertaining for most gamblers. 
  • Excitement: Beyond that, betting often brings an adrenaline rush. Some players seek the thrills of winning similar to that experienced in sports competitions.
  • The Camaraderie: Many players gamble to socialize, such as craps gamblers betting on the shooter or poker players enjoying the competition.
  • Impressing the Crowd: Some people like to show off their wealth to other gamblers by being big spenders. 
  • High Roller Treatment: Other high rollers like the attention, comps, and other rewards they receive from casino staff when they spend a lot of money.
  • The Challenge: Skill-based games like blackjack and poker present a challenge for gamblers to surmount. 

Scientific Research on the Psychology of Gambling

Those are the reasons that recreational and social gamblers visit the casino. Consistent research shows that 96% to 98% of gamblers fall into the recreational gambler or social gambler category—people who are considered healthy gamblers. There’s a dark side to certain gamblers’ mentality, though. 

Problem gamblers and pathological gamblers exist. Problem gamblers do not always control their level of betting, exhibiting certain risk factors that leave them on the edge of compulsive gambling. Pathological gamblers are out of control, unable to control spending in a casino they way a shopping addict might approach retail outlets. Pathological gamblers face addiction issues just the same as alcoholics or drug addicts, dealing with financial distress, bankruptcy, depression, and thoughts of suicide. 

When Does Gambling Become a Problem?

For scientists researching the psychology of pathological gambling, the key is determining the behaviors and motivations that drive a casino patron to the dark side. When does gambling become a problem? What are the danger signs? What motivations are considered problematic for a gambler? 

Reasons Problem Gamblers Keep Gambling

Over the years, a consensus has formed. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV (DSM-IV)—the American Psychiatric Association’s official guide to psychological disorders—stated there are 10 warning signs of compulsive gambling. The DMS-V (2012), which currently informs psychologists, eliminated one of those warning signs (criminal behavior).

Thus, we’re left with 9 factors that indicate problem and pathological gambling. Drawing from the DSM-V, we can state the reasons that gambling addicts exhibit unhealthy gaming behaviors. 

  • Escapism: Many problem gamblers and pathological gamblers play to cope with life’s stresses. 
  • The illusion of Control: Researchers say near-misses and personal choice give some gamblers a sense of control.
  • Winning Money: Others believe they can beat the casino and win real money. This flies in the face of the house edge. 
  • Chasing Losses: After losing money, some see their only way out of the financial predicament is to win back the money they lost.

Problem gamblers tend to have mixed motives, so they often have healthy motives, but sometimes have problematic reasons for extending a gaming session. Their hobby becomes a problem at times. 

Pathological gamblers, on the other hand, are fully in the grip of addiction, so these darker motives usually overshadow their enjoyment of the game. Gambling becomes a slippery slope into a world of financial distress. 

2003 Study on Pathological Gamblers

A 2003 study by Yale researchers showed that pathological gambling is hardwired into the brain. Dr. Mark Potenza used neurological research to prove how the problem and pathological gamblers’ brains react differently than other people’s brains when the subject of gambling broached. 

Potenza’s research team showed images of positive and negative events to thousands of test subjects. Positive images might be weddings, while negative images might involve death or divorce. The neurological response to these images was the same among all groups of people. 

When images of gambling were shown, the responses were much different. When recreational gamblers were shown images of casinos and betting, their brain activity remained the same. When pathological gamblers were shown the same images, their brain activity spiked. Furthermore, it remained at elevated levels for significant amounts of time. Gambling affected their brains in ways it does not with recreational or social gamblers.

2013 Study of Gender Roles in Gambling

Furthermore, gender plays a role in one’s reaction to gambling. A 2013 study by Potenza’s team tested four groups of people: male recreational gamblers, males diagnosed with Internet Gambling Disorder (IGD), female recreational gamblers, and females diagnosed with Internet Gambling Disorder. 

All four groups had increased brain activity as they gambled. The brain activity of recreational gamblers of both genders returned to normal levels soon after gambling ended, though. The brain activity of females with IGD also returned close to the baseline level soon after they stopped gambling. Males with IGD, on the other hand, continued to have increased brain activity for long periods of time. 

According to the Yale researchers, the increased brain activity accounts for the fact that male gamblers are 11% more likely to develop problem gambling than female gamblers. 

Is Age a Factor in Problem Gambling?

Age also is a factor among problem gamblers. Studies have shown that gamblers age 65 and older generally do not develop into problem gamblers. On the other hand, a study of gamblers of ages 18 to 29 shows this age group has the highest risk of developing problem gambling or pathological gambling habits.

Science explains this propensity. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) conducted research into the development of the human brain in the 1990s. The NIH researchers found that the human brain is already 90% of its adult size by the age of 6. By the age of 12, the human brain is the same size as an adult brain. 

Development is far from complete at age 12, though. Myelin, the “white part of the brain”, still is nowhere near adult levels. Myelin insulates neurons, while increasing the speed of axons. Essentially, the brain synapses are not at full strength and efficiency, so they are not used as much as an adult would use them.

How the Brain Forms Good and Bad Habits

The process of development continues all the way until the age of 25, which is the average age that the human brain is fully developed and mature. The NIH study explains why younger people do not consider the consequences of their actions as much as adults—their brains do not work as efficiently. 

Also, as a person thinks and acts, the neural pathways associated with those thoughts and actions grow. Habits form, which reinforces the brain activity associated with those habits. Meanwhile, the neurons that do not get used are “pruned” away. The brain sculpts itself according to the actions we take. 

Thus, until the age of 25, the human brain is much more likely to develop good and bad habits. Twenty-five is the average age of maturity, so some people’s brains mature at the age of 21, while others’ brains mature at 29. In short, science provides evidence that people in the 18-29 age group are more likely to exhibit reckless behavior in general, meaning they’re also more likely to develop bad habits while gambling.

Treatments for Problem Gambling

Multiple studies have shown that cognitive-behavior therapy is an effective treatment for addiction, including gambling addiction. Cognitive-behavior therapy teaches a person how to resist unwanted thoughts, thus helping them form better habits. In the case of gambling, CBT helps them combat the notion that a series of lost bets inevitably leads to a winning bet. 

Researchers say that 80% of problem gamblers never seek treatment. Thus, psychologists who study compulsive gamblers suggest that therapy is the key step. Many reach a level of financial instability that makes treatment cost-prohibitive. Those who seek treatment often do so when faced with bankruptcy, often at the behest of family members or loved ones. Regulated gaming assures that problem gamblers have resources that help them gamble responsibly: helplines and hotlines, self-exclusion lists and panic buttons, and entry into Gamblers Anonymous or other group therapy. 


Healthy gamblers play for a variety of reasons: enjoyment, excitement, camaraderie, special treatment by casinos, and mastering the skills and strategies of a game. These people fall into the broad categories of social and recreational gamblers. The bulk of casino gamblers are distinct from a small group of players who can no longer control their actions. 

Problem gamblers and pathological gamblers have very different motivations when they enter a casino. Many begin seeking casino gambling as a way to escape the stresses and frustrations of life. Those same gamblers find that life’s issues follow them into the casino. Excessive and out-of-control gambling leads to big losses, which often leads the pathological gambler to chase those losses. If they fail in this pursuit—which is likely, pathological gambling may lead to a negative spiral. 

Understanding the psychology of gambling addicts helps researchers develop theories for countering problem gambling. In turn, this helps therapists and gambling counselors develop strategies to help people cope with and overcome compulsive gambling. When a pathological gambler confronts the destructive thought processes that led to their problem behavior, they can develop the tools and the support system needed to change those thought processes.