Gambling is a widespread behaviour that can become harmful, and potentially addictive, in a minority of individuals. Its unique status as a social and recreational activity affords psychologists an opportunity to examine a variety of cognitive and psychological factors that may contribute to gambling behaviour.
The study of pathological gambling has yielded a number of important insights. These include a consensus that it is characterized by two non-mutually exclusive types of motivation: the desire for positively reinforcing subjective excitement and arousal, and the desire for the negatively reinforcing relief or escape from stress or negative emotional states. These motivations are facilitated by the learned association between gambling and positive affect (e.g., enjoyment), and by the perception that gambling enables the individual to increase or obtain control over their financial situation.
However, the study of gambling also demonstrates that these motivations are often not enough to sustain an individual’s compulsive gambling. For example, the protagonist of Alexei Ivanovich’s story in The Gambler turns to casino gambling in order to forget his problems and ease his anguish, but he eventually finds that his losses outweigh his gains. This is what many researchers have come to call the ‘chasing of losses’ phenomenon that characterizes pathological gambling.
Another important insight is that the individual’s personality traits, such as impulsivity and sensation seeking, can act as risk factors in the development of pathological gambling. These traits are elevated in gamblers compared with non-gamblers, and may contribute to their propensity for risk taking and their tendency to misread probability and other betting odds.
Although the behavioural aspects of gambling have been well documented, there has been less attention to its psychological and neurobiological underpinnings. Recent research suggests that there is a heightened sensitivity in the brain to monetary wins and losses, and that this heightened response is correlated with increased striatal activation associated with inflated confidence and perceived control (Akitsuki et al., 2003).
There is also evidence that gambling distortions are encoded in higher cortical regions of the brain, such as the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and striatum. Moreover, studies of gambling involving real money have shown that monetary gains and losses are coded in the same brain areas.
Gambling has a long and rich history in many cultures, and it is likely that humankind will continue to be captivated by its thrills, risks and rewards. Psychologists’ interest in gambling is justified by the unique opportunities it provides for studying cognition, emotion and risk-taking. The authors hope that this article inspires other psychologists to consider this fascinating subject.