Gambling is enjoyable in moderation but is a potentially addictive product that should be approached with caution. All gambling carries some risk, but some people are more vulnerable than others and need to be extra-careful if they choose to gamble. It’s therefore important to know if you’re in a high-risk group before you start.
We’ll explain the risk factors in more detail below, but in a nutshell, some of the biggest are:
- Other mental health issues, compulsive behaviors, or addictions
- Being young and/or male
- Having been around other gamblers from an early age
- Using gambling as an escape from reality
- Holding irrational beliefs about gambling
Some people have a hard time seeing problem gambling as a genuine addiction because it doesn’t involve physically consuming a chemical substance. However, the latest psychiatric research shows that what’s happening in the mind of someone suffering from a gambling problem is almost identical to what’s happening to someone addicted to drugs or alcohol.
Gambling addiction is also stigmatized to an even greater extent than substance addictions. The outcomes can be extremely bad, especially because many who suffer from it have a hard time admitting it to anyone. And where it differs from substance addictions is that there are often no outwardly visible signs until most of the harm has been done.
How do You Know if You Have a Gambling Problem?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is the authoritative text for psychiatrists in the US. Its latest edition includes a diagnosis of gambling disorder.
Per the DSM, a patient can be diagnosed as suffering from gambling disorder if they exhibit at least four relevant symptoms within a 12-month period—unless those symptoms can be better explained as a manic episode, which would entail a different diagnosis.
The symptoms of gambling disorder are:
- Needing to gamble larger amounts of money to achieve the same sensation.
- Being restless or irritable when reducing or stopping gambling.
- Having tried and failed to reduce or stop gambling.
- Preoccupation with gambling.
- Gambling while feeling distressed.
- Gambling to try to win back money previously lost.
- Lying to others about gambling.
- Putting career or relationships at risk due to gambling.
- Relying on others for money to make up for gambling losses.
Based on the DSM’s definition, researchers have put together a questionnaire to assess the severity of an active gambling problem for purposes of statistical research. This is called the Problem Gambling Severity Index (PGSI).
The trouble with the DSM’s definition and the PGSI is that they’re concerned with identifying a gambling problem after it has begun.
Knowing when it’s time to seek help is important. But it’s better to be proactive and gamble carefully—if at all—if you’re at high risk.
Note that no one is entirely safe from gambling addiction. Even if you don’t meet any of these criteria, you should still be careful. But the more closely you match the risk factors, the more likely you are to feel its pull.
Mental Health and Gambling Addiction
All addictions are fundamentally about dopamine, which is the brain’s “reward chemical.” Addiction happens when the sufferer has a hard time getting dopamine from other sources and becomes increasingly reliant on an easy fix from a particular substance or activity.
Some people are born more vulnerable to addiction than others. That tendency applies to all addictions. So, the biggest risk factor for problem gambling is any other previous or current addiction. If you have—or had—a problem with smoking, alcohol, sex, or anything else, you need to be extremely careful about gambling.
Many other mental health conditions can also put one at greater risk, especially if they also have an element of dopamine imbalance. Examples include:
- Depression or anxiety
- Personality disorders
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Finally, some medications can affect dopamine regulation and temporarily put the user at higher risk of gambling addiction. These include some drugs used to treat Parkinson’s disease or restless leg syndrome.
Younger people are at higher risk of developing a gambling problem. The legal age for gambling varies depending on location and product, but it is 21 for casino gambling in most of the US.
By that age, people feel like adults and are treated as such in most ways. However, the latest research suggests that the brain continues developing until about age 25. Before then, we all have a greater tendency to take risks and not worry as much about the consequences. Even after physiological brain development is complete, life experience may play a role in avoiding gambling addiction.
Even for older people, having started gambling early on means greater risk. Seeds planted in childhood or one’s teen years can grow into an addiction later in life.
For similar reasons, men are at higher risk. The fundamental mechanism may be biological, social, or a mix of both, but men are overall less risk-averse and more thrill-seeking than women. They may also feel social pressure to acquire money to show off.
Taken together, these factors mean that men in their teens and twenties are the highest-risk group. Unfortunately, they’re also the core sports betting demographic, so this newly-legal product calls for extra care.
Social Normalization of Gambling
In the late stages of addiction, stigma can be a significant barrier to seeking help. However, in the early stages, normalization can make it easier to slide gradually into addiction without seeing the problem.
In other words, the more you see people gambling and the more they expect it of you, the higher the risk becomes.
This can happen at several levels:
- Growing up in a family of gamblers
- Having many gamblers among your friends
- Working in an environment where gambling takes place
- Belonging to a culture or social group that encourages gambling, displays of wealth, or belief in “luck”
That’s not to say that social acceptance of gambling is bad. It’s a natural and enjoyable thing to do in moderation. But the more common it is in your social environment, the less likely you and those around you are to notice if it’s getting out of hand.
Overconfidence, Superstition, and Early Wins
Research has shown that people with a gambling problem are more likely to hold superstitious beliefs than those without. What’s less clear is how the cause-and-effect relationship works. It might be that being superstitious makes you more likely to become addicted to gambling. Or it might be that those suffering from gambling disorders develop superstitions as they go.
Either way, it’s a red flag to believe that you can control or predict the outcome of a random game. For one thing, it makes you more prone to chasing loses, one of DSM’s nine symptoms of gambling addiction.
Continuing to gamble when you are down makes you more likely to lose additional money than to win it back. Beliefs in magic charms, lucky numbers, or slots that are “due” for a jackpot can change this perception. If you believe that you have a trick that will let you win your money back, you’re at higher risk of entering a loss spiral.
Games with a real or perceived skill element can be problematic for the same reason. Although it is possible to be a winning poker player or sports bettor, the number of actual long-term winners is much smaller than the number of people who believe themselves to be.
It’s a common saying in poker that every loser thinks they’re a winner on an unlucky streak. That kind of overconfidence can be just as harmful as magical thinking in games of pure chance.
Someone who experiences winning sessions early on can be at higher risk for either or both of these things. The brain is quick to form associations and make assumptions. So, if your first gambling experience is a big win, you may end up believing incorrectly that you can keep on winning.
Gambling for the Wrong Reasons
In our lesson titled Why Do We Choose to Gamble?, we broke gambling motivations down into four broad categories:
- To experience a “rush”
- To socialize
- To escape
- To win money
Some of these are more likely to lead to a problem than others. Social gambling is probably the best and safest reason to do it, as long as it doesn’t normalize heavy gambling to the point that you fail to notice a problem (see above).
Conversely, the biggest red flag is gambling to escape reality or fill a void in your life. This is true of all potential addictions, not only gambling. People who are reaching for an easy distraction from other problems are at extremely high risk of developing an addiction.
Looking for a rush may or may not be a problem depending on whether you do it in a balanced way. The “rush” you feel when gambling is dopamine, a chemical in the brain that serves as a reward mechanism when everything is going well, but also becomes the driving force behind addiction when we overindulge.
The difference is that getting a little bit of dopamine from lots of different sources is good, but constantly going back to the same thing is how we form an addiction.
Finally, there’s gambling to win money. In some ways, this is the worst reason, because it usually produces the opposite outcome. Somewhat surprisingly, though, it doesn’t have a particularly high correlation with addiction.
That may be because, absent the other factors, someone trying to win money will usually lose instead, be disappointed by that result, and quit. By contrast, it’s the reliability of the dopamine and distraction effects of gambling that make those motivations so addictive. On those fronts, it does the trick even when you’re losing.
The Problem Gambling Severity Index
What if you think you might already have a gambling problem? To properly diagnose and treat gambling disorder requires professional help. However, the PGSI is simple enough that you can use it as a self-assessment to get a general idea of where you stand.
There are nine questions and four possible answers. For each question, assign yourself a score based on your answer, considering only the past 12 months:
- Never: 0 pts.
- Sometimes (or “rarely”): 1 pt.
- Often: 2 pts.
- Always: 3 pts.
Here are the questions:
- When gambling, have you bet more than you could really afford to lose?
- Have you needed to gamble with larger amounts of money to get the same feeling of excitement?
- Have you gone back another day to try to win back the money you lost?
- Have you borrowed money or sold anything to get money to gamble?
- Have you felt that you might have a problem with gambling?
- Has gambling caused you any health problems, including stress or anxiety?
- Have people criticized your betting or told you that you had a gambling problem, regardless of whether or not you thought it was true?
- Has your gambling caused any financial problems for you or your household?
- Have you felt guilty about the way you gamble or what happens when you gamble?
If your total is 8 or higher, then you are considered to have a gambling problem by the standards of the PGSI. If that’s the case, you may want to consider seeking help to quit or reduce your gambling.
Lower scores correspond to varying levels of risk:
- 0 points: Non-problem gambler.
- 1-2 points: Low-risk gambler.
- 3-7 points: Moderate-risk gambler.
Note that the PGSI is a research tool, not a clinical one. It’s also a work in progress.
Some research has suggested that some questions should be weighted more heavily than others. For instance, borrowing money to gamble and wagering increasing amounts in pursuit of thrill may be comparatively stronger indicators of harm. Conversely, chasing losses and feelings of guilt are weaker indicators and may not mean as much in the absence of other symptoms.
Casino School: The Psychology of Gambling
This has been Psychology of Gambling Lesson 3 of our four-part Casino School series. Next up is Probability Lesson 4: Cognitive Biases & How They Affect Gamblers.