Gambling involves wagering something of value on a random event with the intention of winning something else of value. It can be conducted with money, objects, or virtual tokens such as marbles or the collectible game pieces in Pogs or Magic: The Gathering. The act of gambling is considered a social vice and many societies outlaw it or regulate it heavily. In some cases, a person’s behavior may become pathological. A comprehensive understanding of the psychology of gambling will help to identify mechanisms that prevent this common recreational behaviour from crossing over into problematic territory.
Gambling combines two non-mutually exclusive types of motivation: the desire for positively reinforcing subjective excitement and arousal, and the desire to alleviate negative emotions or stressors. These motivations are typically facilitated by the learnt association between gambling and reward. However, a minority of people can develop a harmful or addictive gambling habit, often resulting in the loss of personal wealth. In this case, a psychological disorder is present, and treatment and assistance are required.
There are a number of theories that attempt to explain the nature and causes of gambling behaviour. These include a cognitive approach that emphasizes thought content and a distorted appraisal of control during gambling, as well as a psychobiological approach, which examines the case-control differences between groups of pathological gamblers and healthy controls. These studies have identified dysregulation of brain areas involved in emotion and reward processing, including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) and striatum, as well as altered dopamine neurotransmission.
While there is no single personality profile for problem or pathological gamblers, several studies have found elevated scores on impulsivity and sensation-seeking traits, with inconsistent findings on extraversion and locus of control. The evidence from these studies is encouraging and suggests that a combination of cognitive and psychobiological approaches can identify a set of variables that are associated with gambling risk and behaviour.
A further challenge is to extend these findings to irregular and non-gambling samples. In addition, there is an urgent need to test the validity of these theory-driven hypothesis with more longitudinal designs that follow gamblers as they move in and out of problematic levels of involvement.
Although a plethora of tests and online assessments exist, they are not able to determine whether an individual’s gambling behavior is a disorder. A face-to-face evaluation by a trained clinical professional is the best way to determine if someone’s behavior meets diagnostic criteria for a gambling disorder. An expert will perform a thorough assessment and create an appropriate treatment plan. The assessment process will take into account the person’s family situation, educational background, financial issues, and professional status. If a person suspects they have a gambling disorder, it is important to seek help immediately. A trained mental health professional will be able to provide an objective and accurate assessment of their behavior, as well as help them to stop gambling and recover any lost income or assets. They will also provide guidance on how to avoid gambling in the future.