The psychology behind gambling

Lea Meier
March 6, 2023

Since the first six-sided dice was invented in Mesopotamia, circa 3000 BCE, and probably way before, gambling has been an integral part of human life. The excitement of gambling is not reserved only for the adrenaline addicted as people of all social groups and ages can find their preferred casino game and have fun with it. Our time is no different, as technology develops faster and online games become more accessible and immersive than ever. Colourful slots entertain us, the roulette turning intrigues us, and the bluffing in poker challenges us. 

At the same time, science has allowed humans to understand better the psychology of gambling and the circuits in our brain triggering the enjoyment of risk, the excitement of winning and the need of certain players to do so again and again. Why has this pastime been so popular all through human history? And how can we improve our attitude towards gambling to enjoy it without negative consequences? Let's find out what psychology has to say about it. 

Why do people gamble?

The key to understanding the psychology of gambling is analyzing the conscious beliefs and unconscious emotional and even physical reactions to this activity. Societal norms, interpersonal relationships, and hormonal responses are among the most significant factors that make gambling a sought-after amusement. 

The community

For many people, gambling is a social activity. Playing together may help to form a lasting friend group by giving you the perfect reason to meet regularly. 

For poker players bonding over bets and bluffs makes for some interesting group dynamics. People who play poker together frequently get to know the others on the table really well as they see them in a competitive environment. 

As for the casinos and racing tracks, their importance as a status symbol and a venue for high-class events is indisputable. Being a big spender means creating a particular image for yourself and projecting a glamorous lifestyle. 

The adrenaline 

Humans are predisposed to enjoy risk as the adrenaline released in the body leads to a pleasant "high". Add to that the gratification that comes with winning, and you get the perfect formula for entertainment that never gets old. Studies show that many of us are eager to choose a higher risk and payoff situation. 

The most curious of the psychology take on gambling is that the hormonal response of losing is identical to the one of winning. Your hormones provide a similar high whether you win or lose, and your enjoyment is independent of the result.

The escapism 

One of the reasons for gambling's potential to become addictive is that some players use it as a mechanism to cope with negative emotions. Stress, depression, and other factors push people to search for a way to escape when dealing with a particular problem seem impossible. 

The escapism aspect of gambling is essential for understanding how people develop an addiction. Research held among fifty with an average age of 39 years showed that the primary reason for their compulsion to gamble is the desire to escape. Playing the game resulted in mood modification for them involving stimulation, fantasies and even dissociation. Some of them reported seeking the change of mood just for the sake of it, but other reasons like "filling the void" or "forgetting about problems" surfaced during the interviews. 

When does gambling become an addiction?

Addiction is an essential subject to discuss when discussing the psychology of gambling. Recognizing the signs is crucial for preventing their harmful effects on somebody's life. Here are some of the indications of compulsive behaviour patterns:

  • Loss of interest in other hobbies and activities, as well as social contacts
  • Chasing losses and disregarding a predetermined gambling budget 
  • Need to increase the sum of the bet to get the same thrill
  • Failure to stop or limit gambling accompanied by a feeling of restlessness
  • Resorting to gambling to deal with negative emotions, stress, or depression
  • Lying to others to hide the time and money spent gambling
  • Suffering work or relationship problems because of gambling
  • Borrowing or stealing money to recover losses

Research shows that gambling is just a recreational or social activity for 96% to 98% of players. Many people enjoy playing games of chance without being at risk of suffering the consequences of gambling addiction, but those who manifest some of these behaviours are in danger. 

Scientific research on the psychology of gambling

Understanding the psychology of gambling is essential for preventing addiction and regulating the sector in a manner that allows players to enjoy the game without jeopardizing those in danger of developing a gambling problem. 

Pathological gambling 

A study held at Yale in 2003 proved that the brain of people predisposed to pathological gambling reacts differently to gambling stimuli. The team of Dr Mark Potenza used images to measure the reaction of the brains of the subjects. While they all responded similarly to positive and negative events depicted, the images of gambling triggered a different neurological response. In the pathological gamblers, the researchers found evidence of a significant spike in brain activity.

The profile of a person at risk

A curious observation Dr Potenza made during his later study is that this spike persisted long after the male pathological gamblers had seen the image. For the female ones, the brain activity returned to normal shortly after being exposed to it. This conclusion helped scientists better to understand the profile of a person at risk.

Another research has shown that young people are much more vulnerable to problem gambling. Genetical factors also increase the risk as people with a parent suffering from this type of addiction are much more likely to develop it themselves. Further investigations suggest, however that this is due as much to environmental factors as to genetic ones.

A study held in 2008 found a correlation between behaviour or mood disorders such as ADHD, antisocial personality disorder and even schizophrenia and gambling addiction. Psychiatric disorders and other abuse problems are 17 times more likely to have gambling problems than others. Personality also plays a role, as tendencies to be competitive, restless, or easily bored may favour the habit of gambling compulsively.

Spectating is the same as playing

A recent study published in the scientific journal BMC Neuroscience suggests humans have a similar brain response to watching someone gambling as if they were doing it themselves. An experiment was held at the University of Barcelona with subjects placed in pairs in front of computers to play a simple game of chance in which they had to guess which one of two numbers would appear on the screen. If he guessed correctly, the player would receive a small amount of money. If he were wrong – he would lose it. His partner was watching the game without interacting with him. 

The researchers divided the pairs into three groups: in the first one, the spectator gained as much as the player. In the second, he lost as much as the player gained and vice versa, and in the third one, he knew from the start he would receive the maximum amount the player could win and was impartial to the game. Using electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the subjects' brain responses, the study discovered that in the third situation, the spectators' brains responded the same way as the players' ones to the losses. However, they didn't lose any money. 

For compulsive gamblers, this means additional efforts to protect themselves from a relapse. For someone recovering from a poker addiction, watching a tournament on TV may be as dangerous as sitting at the poker table himself. Once the emotional response is triggered, it will become even more challenging to resist the urge to gamble. 

How the Brain Forms Good and Bad Habits

There are all kinds of habits we engage in every day. Some are useful, like driving and jogging — others — harmful, like smoking or overeating. Science is still looking to understand better the processes happening in the brain between the moment we adopt a new behaviour and the time it becomes a routine. The so-called habit circuits are the parts of the brain responsible for this process. Gaining a better understanding of this process may help us control it and prevent damaging habits like substance abuse and addictions. 

From action to routine 

The role of the habit for the brain is often, to put it simply, to free resources by switching to autopilot while dealing with everyday activity. That's why we are rarely aware of our routine behaviours and often ask ourselves if we have turned off the oven or locked the door. Without us being aware of a behaviour, it is easy for it to become a harmful habit or an addiction. A deliberate choice to do something turns into a repetitive pattern. Studying the processes that allow this to happen further may help us decipher how to form a habit and answer why it is so difficult to break one. 

Reinforcement contingencies

Neuroscientists are still trying to determine if addictions follow brain mechanisms identical to other habits. The most important feature of the latter is that they are hard to break once formed. This stubbornness has helped scientists identify the brain circuits that deal with developing and maintaining the habit. Habits are supported by "reinforcement contingencies". Simply put, your brain knows that if you do something, you will be rewarded; if you do something else, you will miss the reward and even get a punishment. These "reward-prediction error signals" add positive or negative value to actions, and the brain reinforces them. Neuroscientists hope to gain control over habits and help treat addictions by studying these mechanisms. 

Treatments for Problem Gambling

As for many other conditions, prevention and early identification of the problem are crucial for dealing with a gambling addiction. That's why responsible gambling advice can be found on every casino website. Still, as we saw, some people are predisposed to compulsive gambling and addiction, with several forms of treatment available. 


Two main types of therapy have proven their potential for successfully treating gambling addiction. The first one, behavioural therapy, exposes the patient to problematic behaviour while helping him create mechanisms and develop skills to reduce the urge to relapse. The second one is called cognitive behavioural therapy and deals with identifying negative beliefs and replacing them with positive ones. 


The role of medications in gambling addiction treatment is often to reduce the impact of accompanying conditions like a personality disorder or depression. That's why antidepressants and mood stabilizers improve the patient's psychic state. The narcotic antagonists, used for patients with other types of addictions like substance misuse, may also help treat compulsive gambling.

Support groups 

A supportive environment and the mutual help of others in the same position as you have a proven positive effect on any psychological condition, and gambling addiction is no exception. Groups like Gamblers Anonymous gather regularly and provide much-needed aid to patients. 


Gambling is an entertaining activity you can enjoy in pleasant company and glamorous casinos all over the world. Everyone can find a game to enjoy and engage in recreational and social gambling casually. There is, however, a specific type of people predisposed to developing an addiction. Studying the psychology of gambling is a scientific task that may significantly impact the industry by contributing to smarter regulations and wiser personal decisions.

Problem gambling is rarer in Canada than in other parts of the world. Still, a recent study shows that around 300,000 Canadian gamers are at risk. Identifying the profile of a potential addict can change lives. Understanding the brain mechanisms behind gambling and addictions will help us work on prevention and ensure gambling will be enjoyed responsibly in the future.

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