Pathological Gambling


Gambling is the wagering of money or other value on the outcome of a random event, such as a scratch card, slot machine, or a game of chance. It can also be the betting of a sum of money or property on a sporting event, horse race or other competitive activity. While gambling involves a degree of risk, the odds of winning are typically greater than the odds of losing.

The practice of gambling has a long history, dating back to ancient times. Archeological evidence includes dice, playing cards and other gaming equipment from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Europeans engaged in such activities as cockfighting, bear and bull baiting, and wrestling matches. In the nineteenth century, however, the popularity of gambling waned as the population became more concerned about morality and as social attitudes moved away from acceptance of such activities as a sin or human weakness toward viewing them as mostly harmless and even entertaining.

Pathological gambling (PG) is a persistent and recurrent pattern of maladaptive gambling behavior that causes significant distress, dysfunction and/or harm to the gambler. A person who meets the diagnostic criteria for PG is considered to have a problem with gambling and should seek treatment. The onset of PG is often in adolescence or young adulthood and may be gradual or rapid. It is more common in men than in women. It is more likely to affect people who engage in strategic or face-to-face forms of gambling, such as blackjack or poker, than in nonstrategic, less interpersonally interactive forms of gambling, such as lotteries or slot machines.

Those with a PG disorder have trouble controlling their gambling activity and are unable to stop. They often engage in risky behaviors, such as lying to family members or therapists or engaging in furtive activities to conceal their involvement in gambling. They may also become preoccupied with gambling and neglect other important aspects of their lives. In addition, they frequently feel the need to “chase” their losses, trying to recoup their losses.

Some people with a PG disorder are able to manage their gambling without suffering significant negative consequences, but many do not and continue to gamble even when they are experiencing serious problems. They often report that they find gambling to be a useful, albeit harmful, way of distracting themselves from other worries, demands and responsibilities (Blaszczynski & Nower, 2002; Jacobs, 1986). Furthermore, research has found that striatal responses to monetary wins are robust and unaffected by the distortions in thinking associated with PG such as false confidence and chasing losses, whereas cortical regions are activated when the illusion of control is evoked, suggesting that these cognitive distortions may be encoded in higher-order brain areas (Kool et al., 2013).

If you are concerned about your own gambling behavior or that of someone close to you, seek help. Reach out to friends and family, enroll in a support group such as Gamblers Anonymous, or try activities such as a hobby or exercise. Alternatively, consider joining an addiction recovery program such as Alcoholics Anonymous, which is based on peer-to-peer support.