Gambling is a popular and widespread activity, involving the use of chance to win money or other prizes. For most people, gambling is a harmless recreational activity, but for some it becomes harmful, even addictive. Problem gambling is associated with psychological, social and economic harm for the gambler. It may cause depression, suicidal ideation, and a decrease in job performance. It also increases the risk of other harmful behaviours such as substance use and criminal activities. The most obvious harm is financial, but many other forms of gambling-related harm are also reported.
The causes of pathological gambling have been studied from a variety of perspectives. The cognitive approach argues that gamblers hold erroneous beliefs about their true chances of winning, leading them to misestimate the expected value of their gambles. This leads them to continue gambling despite negative outcomes (e.g., Blaszczynski & Nower 2002).
Other researchers have examined brain activity during gambling and found that when humans receive a monetary win, a particular region of the brain called the striatum is activated. This is the same neural circuit that responds to natural reinforcers such as food and sexual stimuli, and to drugs of abuse such as cocaine. Research has also shown that when people gamble, their brains release dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with reward and excitement. This increase in dopamine levels may lead some people to continue gambling even when they are losing money, as it provides them with a feeling of reward and excitement.
In addition, gambling is a way for people to relieve boredom, anxiety and low moods. Psychological studies of gamblers suggest that this is one of the primary motivations for gambling (Elliott et al. 2005). A number of studies have also investigated the role of environmental cues in triggering gambling behaviour. For example, flashing lights and the chime of coins are thought to trigger Pavlovian processes that result in arousal and increased heart rate, and the subsequent desire to gamble. Moreover, some studies have demonstrated that the sound of a slot machine or the sight of other people gambling may also act as an environmental cue for gambling behaviour.
Gambling has long been a common part of the human experience, with early examples including dice games in ancient Rome and Greece. In modern times, the advent of casinos and electronic gaming machines has led to an expansion in gambling availability. The emergence of the Internet and the growth in online gambling has accelerated this trend, making the game more accessible than ever before.
Although some research indicates that there is no typical personality profile for pathological gamblers, several studies have found elevated scores on certain traits, such as impulsivity and sensation-seeking. It is also possible that psychopathic traits contribute to the development of gambling problems by enhancing the likelihood of engaging in these types of risky behaviours.