The psychology behind gambling

Giselle Adriene
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 gambling 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. 

The Thrill of the Game

The role of dopamine: The 'feel-good' neurotransmitter.

Dopamine, often dubbed the 'feel-good' neurotransmitter, plays a pivotal role in the psychology of gambling. As individuals engage in gambling activities, their brain's reward system releases brain chemical dopamine etc, which imparts a sensation of pleasure and satisfaction. This neurotransmitter's release is particularly pronounced when gamblers experience unexpected rewards or near-misses, making the act of gambling even more enticing.

For many, this dopamine surge becomes a driving force behind their gambling behavior, constantly seeking the next 'high'. However, for problem gamblers, this system can become dysregulated. The consistent chase for dopamine release leads them down a path of escalating gambling habits, pushing them deeper into the clutches of problem gambling disorder.

It's worth noting that similar mechanisms, like the bandwagon effect, can also influence behaviors beyond gambling, but the dopamine response remains a central component in understanding compulsive gambling patterns.

The near-miss effect: Why almost winning can be as exhilarating as winning.

In the realm of gambling, the near-miss effect is a powerful psychological phenomenon that has entranced gamblers for ages. It refers to the tantalizing feeling when an outcome is just shy of a win, giving the illusion that success was almost grasped. This sensation can be as exhilarating as an actual victory, driving gamblers to continue playing in the hopes of achieving the elusive win. In the bustling environment of a casino or an internet gambling platform, these near-misses often propel players into a cycle of continuous play.

For problem gamblers, this effect can intensify the cycle of loss chasing, wherein they attempt to recover their losses by gambling even more. The near-miss effect influences gambling behavior by creating an illusion of control or a perceived increase in chances of gambler or winning.

While it might share similarities with other behavioral drivers like the bandwagon effect, where people make decisions based on the actions of others, the near-miss uniquely capitalizes on human optimism and the ever-present hope for a favorable turn in one's fortune.

The illusion of control: Overestimating one's influence over random outcomes.

The illusion of control is a captivating cognitive bias that permeates the world of gambling. It's the belief that one has a greater influence over random events than they truly do. In the vibrant atmosphere of a casino, for instance, gamblers might think that their unique method of rolling dice or pressing a button will affect the outcome. This overconfidence in one's abilities can be misleading, particularly in gambling where most outcomes are inherently random.

For many people, falling prey to this illusion can be harmless, simply adding to the excitement of the game. However, for problem gamblers, it can exacerbate their gambling problem, making them believe they can 'beat the system'.

This mindset often leads to loss chasing, where problem gamblers attempt to recover losses with the mistaken belief that they can influence the lottery jackpots next result. Recognizing that gambling is a game of chance and not of skill is crucial, especially for those at risk of developing problem gambling habits.

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 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 playing 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 or form 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 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. 

Cognitive Distortions in Gambling

Gambler's fallacy: Believing that past results influence future outcomes.

Gambler's fallacy is a compelling cognitive distortion deeply rooted in the psychology of many gamblers. At its core, it's the misguided belief that past results in gambling games can influence future outcomes. For instance, if a roulette wheel lands on red multiple times consecutively, the gambler's fallacy would lead one to believe that black is due to come up next.

This erroneous belief can motivate gamblers to continue playing or to adjust their bets based on past results, thinking they can predict the odds. For the casual player, this might merely add a layer of strategy or superstition to the game.

However, for problem gamblers, this fallacy can be a dangerous pitfall. It reinforces the urge to gamble more, with the mistaken confidence that they can foresee or influence upcoming results based on previous patterns. Such beliefs can lead to the development of elaborate but flawed gambling systems, further entrenching the gambling problems they face.

Understanding and recognizing the gambler's fallacy is vital in promoting responsible behaviour in gambling and assisting those on the brink of problem gambling.

Confirmation bias: Remembering the wins and forgetting the losses.

Confirmation bias is a pervasive cognitive phenomenon that plays a significant role in the world of gambling. It refers to the tendency of individuals to favor and remember information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs or biases while ignoring or forgetting contradictory information.

In the context of gambling, this often manifests as gamblers vividly recalling their wins and conveniently overlooking their losses. This selective memory not only skews their perception of their overall performance but also fosters a more positive and often unrealistic view of their possible gambling gambling habits.

For problem gamblers, this bias can be especially detrimental. By disproportionately valuing wins and diminishing the impact of losses, they might be lulled into a false sense of proficiency or luck in the gambling environment.

This misperception can further entrench them in a cycle of problem gambling, as they continue to chase the euphoria of past victories, often overlooking the mounting consequences of their actions. Recognizing and combating confirmation bias is crucial for those aiming for a balanced perspective on their gambling habits.

Overconfidence: Believing one can beat the odds.

Overconfidence is a cognitive bias that leads individuals to overestimate their abilities, knowledge, or the accuracy of their predictions. In the realm of gambling, overconfidence often manifests as an inflated belief in one's ability to predict or influence outcomes, even in games of pure chance.

Gamblers, swayed by this bias, might believe that they have a unique strategy, insight, or system that allows them to beat the odds. This overestimation can be particularly pronounced in internet gambling, where the rapid pace and accessibility can amplify one's belief in their expertise.

For some, this may result in the development of intricate gambling systems or methods that they believe will ensure success in gambling games. However, in reality, most gambling processes are inherently random, and no strategy can guarantee consistent wins.

Problem gamblers, especially, can be detrimentally impacted by overconfidence, as their unwavering belief in their ability can fuel their gambling addiction, pushing them deeper into a vortex of losses and reinforcing a cycle of problem gambling. Recognizing the pitfalls of overconfidence is crucial for anyone navigating the unpredictable waters of gambling.

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 as of 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. 

The Future of Gambling

Technological advancements: VR gambling, AI in gambling, etc.

Technological advancements, advances including Virtual Reality (VR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), have transformed the gambling industry. VR offers immersive experiences, plunging players into virtual casinos, while AI enhances user experiences and can even detect potential problem gambling behaviors. However, these innovations also raise concerns.

The enveloping nature of VR might blur the line between reality and virtuality, potentially intensifying addiction. Additionally, while AI can identify problem gamblers, it brain imaging technology could also be used to exploit them. As technology further integrates with gambling, addressing its ethical implications and guarding against addiction is crucial.

The increasing convergence of gaming and gambling.

The lines between gaming and gambling are increasingly blurring, with video games introducing elements like loot boxes that resemble gambling practices. This overlap raises concerns, especially among younger players, who may struggle to distinguish between casual gaming and potentially addictive gambling behaviors.

There's growing apprehension that such gaming mechanisms might serve as gateways to real-world gambling. As the convergence intensifies, the need for regulatory measures to protect vulnerable individuals, particularly those at risk of gambling drug addiction, becomes paramount.

Responsible gambling initiatives and regulatory changes.

Responsible gambling initiatives, backed by regulatory changes, aim to create a safer environment for all gamblers, particularly in problem gambling or problem gambler relatives. These measures encompass self-exclusion programs, betting limits, and educational campaigns on problem gambling.

With a growing focus on online platforms, regulations ensure age checks and resources for those at risk. The goal is to frame gambling as entertainment, not a harmful addiction, and to protect vulnerable individuals from potential pitfalls.


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 games 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 gambling addict can change lives. Understanding the brain mechanisms behind gambling and addictions will help us work on prevention and ensure the gambling possible will be enjoyed responsibly in the future.

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About the author

Giselle Adriene

Giselle Adriene is a remarkable author who has transitioned from being an avid casino player to a highly skilled professional game analyzer. Giselle's journey began with a deep fascination for the thrilling world of casinos, where she honed her skills through countless hours of gameplay.

After experiencing the highs and lows of the casino floor, Giselle realized her passion extended beyond playing. She yearned to uncover the secrets behind successful strategies and delve into the intricacies of game design. Determined to explore this realm, she embarked on a new path as a game analyzer. With her keen eye for detail and analytical mindset, Giselle quickly established herself as a trusted authority in the field. Her ability to dissect games, identify patterns, and uncover hidden nuances allowed her to provide valuable insights to both players and casino operators.

Giselle's expertise and contributions to the gaming industry have not gone unnoticed. She has been recognized with multiple prestigious awards for her exceptional work. These accolades serve as a testament to her dedication and unwavering commitment to excellence in the field of game analysis.

With her exceptional skills, relentless pursuit of knowledge, and numerous accolades, Giselle Adriene stands as a respected figure in the gaming industry. Her passion for unraveling the intricacies of games and sharing her expertise has established her as a trusted source of guidance for enthusiasts and professionals alike. 2022 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.