Why Some Of Us Develop Gambling Addictions

As little as a decade ago, it was still controversial to say that gambling addictions were the same as drug addictions. Instead, gambling addictions were seen more as a result of poor choices rather than as a result of cravings/compulsions. But gambling addiction is like any other addiction – even down to the way it changes the brain.

Addictions have different causes, and some people are more susceptible to developing them than others are. In this article, I’m going to explore some of these causes so that you can understand why addiction happens and, hopefully, take action if you need to.

A Little Bit About What’s Happening In An Addict’s Brain

Let me just preface this: I’m not a doctor nor clinical psychologist, and the following information is a simplified overview of what’s happening in the brains of people with gambling addictions. It’s usually explained in terms of the brain’s reward circuits, especially the neurotransmitter ‘dopamine’, which is what I’m going to focus on here.

In reality, there’s a lot more going on, and there are different brain systems and neurotransmitters involved. For example, numerous studies show that low serotonin in monkeys leads to greater risk-taking and impulsivity, and scientists have found similar patterns in rats.

So there’s several things happening, but I’m going to focus on the brain’s reward circuits and the neurotransmitter dopamine because it’s the biggest influence in addiction.

Risk-taking And Dopamine

Addiction to gambling relates to risk-taking. Risk-taking is a normal part of life because we live in an uncertain world where we need to balance the pros and cons of an action – ‘Should I eat that donut or go for a run?’ ‘Should I stop at this amber traffic light or be an amber gambler?’ We’ve evolved a brain that is extremely fine-tuned in risk assessment.

Dopamine is a key neurotransmitter inolved in risk-taking behaviour. Your brain ‘squirts out’ dopamine when it wants you to feel good about something you’ve just done, e.g., you’ve just eaten a high-fat burger and now you feel good. Your brain wants you to feel good here because fat and protein were historically hard to obtain but high in energy and nutrients. It wants you to feel good so that you seek out more of it, and this will help keep you alive and healthy.

So dopamine makes us feel good for brief moments as a reward for doing a beneficial behaviour. It makes you happy when your team wins, content after a meal, jubilant when you get an unexpected windfall (e.g., gambling!), etc.

What’s Wrong With Feeling Good?

But there’s a problem. You can become desensitised to dopamine when you have too much of it. If you flood your brain with too much dopamine, your brain stops reacting to it properly. It needs more and more stimulation to get the same effect.

This is because our brains like to do this thing called, ‘homeostasis’, which basically means ‘keeping in balance’. It only wants you to feel a set amount of happiness – not too much and not too little. If you’re too happy, you’ll stop taking action because you have no need to, and if you’re not happy enough, you’ll stop taking action because you don’t care. When you stop taking action, you die. Your brain doesn’t want that.

In effect, your brain has a happiness thermostat that dials things up or down depending on what’s happening. If you keep chasing the highs, you flood your brain with dopamine, and then your brain stops reacting to it as well.

Think of it as the Goldilocks effect – not too much and not too little. And this is true for many brain and body functions. For example,  type 2 diabetes happens when you’ve overloaded your body with sugar and your body then stops reacting to insulin properly, which is the hormone that helps you process sugar. You then start to become ill because your body becomes less sensitive to the signals telling it to remove sugar from your blood.

It becomes a vicious cycle.

What’s Happening In A Gambling Addict’s Brain?

In effect, a gambling addict has started off gambling and their brains have squirted out dopamine. You felt good, so you gambled again. You keep doing it, but as you play more and more, your brain becomes desensitised to dopamine, which means you stop feeling good when making small bets, and you need to make riskier bets to get the same initial feeling of happiness.

The fact that high risk-takers seem to have more dopamine floating around between their neurons corroborates this. They have high levels of dopamine because their brains are less sensitive to it. A skydiver might need to jump out of a plane to get the same buzz you and I might get from a seesaw. Also, up to 7% of Parkinson’s patients develop a compulsive gambling problem after starting treatment – treatments for Parkinson’s increase the availability of dopamine.

Risk-taking is not a bad thing. If humans never took risks, we’d still be plankton. Problems happen when we over-indulge in dopamine-stimulating activities, like gambling or drugs. We like those behaviours because they release a lot of dopamine, but they’re really just tricking your brain into thinking you’re doing something beneficial for your survival.

Some gambling games are worse than others are at tricking your brain. Slot machines are the worst because they keep delivering you little dopamine shots each time you get close to making a line.

By the way, parts of the internet are the same. The person who invented infinite scrolling planned for it to be compulsive – it gives you intermittent rewards by showing you something you’re interested in every few scrolls.

If you haven’t already watched it, “The Social Dilema” on Netflix has an excellent explanation of infinite scrolling as well as how parts of the internet were built to be addictive. There’s even some talk of banning infinite scrolling in the USA.

Who’s More Likely to Develop a Gambling Problem?

So I’ve explained what happens when you develop a gambling addiction, but it doesn’t explain why some people become addicted and others don’t.

As much as 1% of the population has a gambling problem meaning 99% don’t. The difference comes down to all sorts of things. It’s partly genetic, partly environmental, partly cultural and probably a lot more besides.

The Gambling Commission found the following demographics are more susceptible to gambling addictions:

  • Men
  • The unemployed
  • Men aged between 25 to 34 (age wasn’t an indicator of addiction in women)
  • Black or minority ethnic
  • People who have mental health problems
  • People who have low feelings of wellbeing

 

I have to admit, these statistics surprised me. I had some stereotypes in my head about who would be included. E.g., I thought it was rich city workers who gambled the most. Maybe Hollywood put that idea in my head with all its high-rolling spies?

The reality seems to be that you’re more likely to develop an addiction (of any kind) if you have a genetic disposition and experience high amounts of stress or boredom. But, anyone can become an addict, some people just acquire them more easily.

What To Do If You Think You Have A Gambling Problem

First, don’t panic. You CAN treat addiction. It doesn’t matter if you’re more prone to addiction or not; all addictions are treatable. Nobody’s a lost cause.

All UK-casinos have to put measures in place to help you or face punishment, so check out their self-exclusion process. Get in contact with your bank, too. Some of them now allow you to block gambling transactions.

For further help and advice, check out our articles on compulsive gambling and how to stop gambling.

 

Illustration of a brain to represent gambling addictions