Why Do People Gamble?

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Some might say that gambling is irrational, but that hasn’t prevented it from being one of the most popular forms of entertainment among adults worldwide. It exists in virtually every culture in some form, though many governments have tried to ban it over the years for the harm it can cause.

On the one hand, gamblers hope to win money. On the other, most forms of gambling are statistically a losing proposition. So why do people do it?

This is a subject of ongoing psychological research. There are many individually simple reasons someone might choose to gamble. However, the relationship between those reasons and how they combine for individual gamblers is very complicated and something scientists don’t fully understand yet.

The simplest answer—probably too simple—is that we gamble because of dopamine.

How we feel at any given moment depends heavily on the mix of chemicals called neurotransmitters in our brains. Many of these are involved in the impulse to gamble, but perhaps none so much as dopamine, which plays a key role in our brain’s reward system.

Specifically, we experience a sudden increase in dopamine as a pleasurable “rush.” Things that make you feel excitement, satisfaction, or a sense of accomplishment are all supplying dopamine.

You could say that gambling produces dopamine because it’s exciting—or that it’s exciting because it produces dopamine. But why certain activities excite us in this way, and how we learn to anticipate that rush, is a more complicated topic.

Right & Wrong Reasons for Gambling

Dopamine isn’t inherently good or bad. It’s one of the things that drives us to do the things we need to do, like performing at work or even just remembering to eat. On the other hand, the cycle of chasing an easy dopamine rush is what drives addiction.

By the same token, gambling is also not inherently good or bad. Some people have a healthy relationship with gambling, others have an unhealthy one. Still others prefer to abstain entirely, either because they’ve found it hard to do responsibly or never enjoyed it in the first place.

Having a healthy relationship with gambling requires knowing why you’re gambling and making sure it’s for the right reasons.

The Gambling Motives Questionnaire

In 2008, Canadian psychologists Sherry Stewart and Martin Zack published an experimental questionnaire called the Gambling Motives Questionnaire (GMQ). They based it on the Drinking Motives Questionnaire (DMQ) first published in 1994 by M. Lynne Cooper et al.

The DMQ divided people’s stated reasons for drinking alcohol into four categories: enhancement, social, coping, and conformity.

Stewart and Zack followed that model but removed the conformity category, perhaps because gambling isn’t normalized and expected in North American society to the same extent as drinking. Other researchers—Benjamin Schellenberg and Daniel McGrath—later published a revised version of the GMQ, adding financial motives as a category.

Let’s look at each of these categories and what they suggest about a gambler’s habits.

Gambling for the Rush

The “enhancement” category of motivations includes excitement, fun and other positive feelings generated by gambling. In other words, doing it for the dopamine.

On the surface, this might seem like the only good reason to gamble. After all, if you’re not enjoying yourself there’s not much point to gambling. Moreover, having negative feelings about gambling but being unable to stop is a sign of addiction.

However, moderation is extremely important when it comes to gambling for thrills. Of the four motivations, enhancement is the one that most strongly correlates with a higher volume of gambling, especially in men. That higher amount of gambling can, in turn, contribute to addiction.

So, gambling because it excites you isn’t inherently bad. Comparing two people who gamble the same amount, the one who does it mostly for the thrills isn’t at higher risk. But the people who like it the most also tend to do it the most, and that can become a problem.

What that means is that if you get a rush from gambling, it’s all the more important to set time and spending limits for yourself and stick to them.

Gambling to Socialize

As far as the likelihood of harm goes, social reasons are the least risky motivations to gamble. Of the four categories, it’s the only one that doesn’t show a clear connection with higher rates of problem gambling.

This is very similar to what the DMQ found about alcohol. Drinking—or gambling—on special occasions or while spending time with friends is comparatively healthier than doing it alone.

That makes sense because social connection is psychologically good for us in the long term, in ways that quick fixes for feeling good often aren’t. If gambling is incidental to having a good time with friends, it’s less likely to become a problem than if it is the primary, direct source of pleasure.

Gambling to Escape

Arguably the worst reason to gamble is to run away from other problems. Those who gamble to cope with anxiety, depression, or stress are at high risk in the same way as drinkers who use alcohol as a crutch.

The original GMQ included five reasons that fall under the umbrella of “coping”:

  • To relax
  • To forget worries
  • To boost self-confidence
  • To help with nervousness or depression
  • To cheer up when in a bad mood

Crucially, coping motivations are the only ones that correlate with gambling problems independently of the amount of gambling. That is, there’s no safe amount of gambling when coping is the reason.

Those gambling for thrills are only at higher risk because they tend to gamble more. By contrast, a coping gambler is at higher risk even compared to others who gamble the same amount.

Gambling for Money

A lot of responsible gambling messaging focuses on discouraging people from gambling for financial reasons. That’s probably because the loss of money is often the most outwardly obvious form of harm that people experience from a gambling problem.

However, studies of gambling motivation and harm have produced mixed results about the impact of financial motives. They may put gamblers at higher risk of a problem, but not to the same extent as enhancement or coping.

That doesn’t mean that gambling to try to make money is a good idea. It’s still an irrational and counter-productive thing to do. It also indicates certain cognitive biases that at-risk gamblers sometimes use to rationalize their habit.

Like enhancement, the main risk from gambling for financial motives may come if it leads to gambling more. Chasing losses, for instance, is an extremely risky habit. By contrast, a lottery player who buys one ticket a week in the hopes of winning the jackpot may be making a financially unwise decision, but not suffering more from it than they would from any other frivolous spending.

Your Gambling Motivations & What to Do About Them

Where do you fit in among those four categories? Thinking about your motivations can help you stay safe:

  • If you’re gambling socially to spend time with friends, you’re probably okay. Just make sure that you’re actually gambling to socialize and not socializing as an excuse to gamble. And make sure you have non-gambling relationships too, as you don’t want peer pressure to dictate how often you gamble.
  • If you’re gambling for the thrill of it, you need to keep a close eye on how much time and money you’re spending. There’s nothing wrong with getting a rush from a bet, but chasing that high can lead to addiction.
  • If you’re gambling for money, read our lessons on Probability and Cognitive Biases. Whether or not you’re at risk of a gambling problem, you’d be better off saving or investing your money than betting it.
  • If you’re gambling to cope with negative feelings, consider stopping. Reaching for an easy fix when you’re stressed, depressed, or anxious is never healthy, regardless of whether that crutch is gambling, drugs, alcohol, or something else.

If you feel you might have a gambling problem or are concerned about your habits in any way, call the national gambling helpline at 1-800-GAMBLER.

Casino School: The Psychology of Gambling

This has been Psychology of Gambling Lesson 1 of our four-part Casino School series. Next up is Psychology of Gambling Lesson 2: Humans See Patterns, Even in Randomness – How Gambling Fools Your Brain.

About the Author

Alex Weldon

Alex Weldon

Alex Weldon is an online gambling industry analyst with nearly ten years of experience. He currently serves as Casino News Managing Editor for Bonus.com, part of the Catena Media Network. Other gambling news sites he has contributed to include PlayUSA and Online Poker Report, and his writing has been cited in The Atlantic.
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