If you gamble regularly, the question, ‘Why is gambling addictive?’ probably seems absurd. Gambling is addictive because it’s fun and exciting. But plenty of things are fun and exciting without being addictive. What is it about gambling that is so compelling that otherwise responsible people will spend all their savings then steal money to gamble more? In gambling, there is a confluence of addictive psychological factors, what billionaire Charlie Munger aptly calls a ‘jackpot’. Here are the major factors.
Intermittent reward. Everyone knows the excitement of gambling lies in the possibility of winning. That obviously implies there is also a possibility of losing and never being sure whether you will win or lose on the next hand, turn, spin, or pull. What’s less obvious is that this uncertainty massively increases the dopamine spike from winning.
Compare gambling to another potentially addictive behaviour, drinking. You get a certain level of satisfaction from ordering a drink and drinking it. Some people get much more satisfaction than others, but the level of satisfaction is pretty much the same every time you have a drink. It’s predictable. The reward from drinking is reliable but small, while the reward from gambling is unreliable but huge. You can be sure you will eventually get a payoff, but you have no idea when.
We’re bad at probability. Even if we’re good at maths, people do not naturally think in terms of probability. You may understand rationally that for each spin of the roulette wheel the probability of red or black is slightly less than half, but still feel in your bones that if the last spin was black, the next will probably be red.
Casinos exploit this weakness by amplifying our other biases. For example, a siren sounds when someone in the room wins at a slot machine. You may hear frequent sirens and believe winning is common, but you might feel differently if you also heard a buzzer for the many thousands of failed attempts.
Your brain starts working against you. In recent years, researchers have begun to discover that gambling addiction is much more similar to substance addiction than anyone thought. One factor is the strong dopamine response, which gradually creates a tolerance. You then need to take even bigger risks to feel the same excitement. Another similar feature is that the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for judgement and rational thinking, gradually becomes cut off from the brain’s reward system. As a result, the voice that tells you, ‘this is a really bad idea’, becomes quieter and quieter and the voice that says, ‘WOOHOO!’ is pretty much running the show.
Smarmore Castle Private Clinic in County Louth, near Dublin was founded in 1988 as a residential rehabilitation hospital treating people suffering from drug and alcohol purposes. Smarmore Castle believes in helping patients lead a life of abstinence through 12 Step programmes, detox and medical treatment, psychotherapy, and complementary therapies. For more information, please call 041-214-5111. For those who live out of the country, the international number is 00353-41-214-5111.
Last updated & clinically assessed 26 March, 2021