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The Price Of Luck: Examining The Draw Of Pathological Gambling

There was a man in England who was so frustrated with his life that he cashed in everything he owned for £70,000, bought a one-way ticket to Las Vegas, and bet all of his money on one colour in roulette. He won, and it changed his life for the better.

On the flip side, Justyn Rees Larcombe, a former major in the British army, lost an almost perfect life by spending more than half a million pounds on online gambling. It started with a free £5 bet that led to a full-blown addiction. His wife divorced him, but they stayed friends when he recovered after two years. His sons also forgave him. He now helps fellow addicts in recovery, and is campaigning for education and a change in UK laws governing gambling.

Sandra Adell, a prominent professor, became addicted to slot machines after just one trip to a casino. It escalated to include alcohol addiction. She hit rock bottom after she was arrested for drunk driving. After recovery, she turned her negative experience into a book titled ‘Confessions of a Slot Machine Queen’.

Dr. Michael Souza, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, is a product of gambling… but not in the way one might think. He was accepted at the University of California Davis at 18, but couldn’t afford to attend it because his father, a pathological gambler, squandered away his college fund. Instead of lashing back at his dad for gambling, he made gambling work for him. He worked 60 hours a week for one year as a blackjack dealer and supervisor—enough to go to college for three years.

These real-life stories offer contrasting perspectives on the effects of gambling. Dr. Souza went a step further by devoting his career to it. His involvement with casinos gave him firsthand knowledge of the gambling industry. He now explores gambling addiction from a behavioural, cognitive, and neurobiological standpoint. He offers courses that examine the social psychology behind gambling behaviour, casino structuring, and casino marketing.

Dr. Souza has visited and worked for various casinos around the world, including those in Las Vegas, Nevada; Atlantic City (the Las Vegas of the East), New Jersey; Monte Carlo, Monaco; and Macau, which he calls “the Las Vegas of Asia; the new Mecca of gambling.” He says Macau casinos now make more money than its rival Vegas strip.

Pathological Gambling

Jokes abound about pathological lying, but there is such a thing as pathological gambling. Considered an impulse control disorder before the release of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders version five (DSM-V) in 2013, it is now reclassified as an addictive disorder. Researchers found neurological similarities between gambling addiction and drug addiction, as well as a genetic basis.

Why is this a problem?

Compulsive gambling has ruined the lives of many people because of its addictive nature. A pathological gambler cannot resist the impulse to gamble. The thought of gambling becomes so overwhelming and an intrusive preoccupation that the only relief is to engage in it despite negative consequences. These include financial ruin, having relationships destroyed because of mistrust, careers derailed because of the breakdown in responsibility, and lack of accountability due to moral boundaries changing. “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

Probably the most insidious effects of gambling addiction are legal problems leading to incarceration and suicide—when the gambler can no longer cope with consequences. Both circumstances have further reach, like abandoned children and families left in poverty.

Why is it so prevalent?

Gambling is a highly profitable business. In Canada, revenue from gambling establishments increased from $2 billion to over $14 billion from 1992 to 2008. The government gets a chunk of that, so they’ve legalized it. It is the same in the United States, where profits reach $60 billion a year in legal gambling alone. Sports wagering accounts for over $90 million in revenue per year for Las Vegas casinos. Gambling has turned Las Vegas into the fastest growing city in the US.

Paul Simon, former US senator, said, “Gambling is the only addiction the government promotes and then investigates it when they lose control. We would be offended if we saw a sign that says, ‘Drink more whiskey. Have a great time, because the government collects funds.’”

Gambling establishments are accessible. In Nevada, even gas stations, groceries, and the airport have slot machines. Humans all seek reward. For those who like gambling, it’s hard to resist when opportunities are everywhere.

21st century concerns

Addiction physicians mention two groups most susceptible to gambling addiction: seniors and teenagers. With the advent of online gambling, there’s no need to leave the house. Location and travelling are not restrictions anymore, so more people are gambling.

Strategies that promote gambling addiction

Dr. Souza identified mechanisms by which people start and continue gambling. Casinos and other gambling establishments exploit these to encourage people to spend large amounts of money. They hire professionals to use neuroeconomics and neuromarketing for this purpose.

The ‘What if?’ Principle

Las Vegas was built on this. That’s why casinos have a ‘wall of winners’—to prove that winning does happen to ordinary people. Many hang on to that possibility of a huge win that could change their lives.

The mechanism to earn

Casinos offer money-back promotions, discounted offers, and loyalty points called ‘comps’ (complimentary perks). The longer you play, the more rewards you get. These are meant to entice people to gamble more and to serve as consolations when they lose. A husband who just lost at the poker table, for example, may justify his losses with: “I may have lost $1,000, but I saw a Celine Dion show with my wife, which made us closer.” Translated: “It could have been worse. At least, I got something out of it.”

Approach motivation

Aria, a Las Vegas casino, has a curved entrance because the establishment doesn’t want visitors to see everything at once. They want customers to explore. Tables are structured around bars where young adults congregate. Lighting, sounds, smells, are designed to stimulate and thrill. They used to pipe in sounds to make it seem like more coins were falling to create the illusion that more people are winning all at once.

The longer customers stay, the more casinos can make money off them—not just from gambling, but in other ways like food, merchandise, and shows. Casino games are usually stacked in favour of the house. Many people know this, yet they still play. The longer they play, the longer they stand to lose.

Informational influence

Casinos create an environment of illusion which shows people having a good time. They propagate a cool culture where visitors are made to feel powerful, as if they belong to the ‘in’ crowd. Dr. Souza says, “We’re social creatures. We look to others on how to behave. If we see someone win money, we want the same for ourselves.”

Logic change influence

Casino culture promotes ideas like “By not gambling, I’m actually losing money because I could be making money.”

Biased evaluations

Discounting loss and bolstering wins: when gamblers win, they’re lucky or skilled. When they lose, it’s just bad luck.

Distortion of reality

In a casino, money is converted to chips, tokens, credits—distorting the gambler’s view of money. Since it changes into a different object, it somehow means it’s worth less. This makes it easier to part with it.

Reinforcement

People are gambling because they’ve been reinforced (they’ve won) in the past, so they play repeatedly to get the same outcome. In Canada, 1-2% (600,000 people) have a gambling addiction, while in the US, it’s 5% (15 million people).

Illusion of control

People believe they can control events they can’t. As an example, Dr. Souza cites his mom’s strategy for getting sixes with dice. She blows on the dice, then rubs them on her cat. When she does get sixes, she’s convinced her strategy works. “The goofy behaviour doesn’t necessarily affect the outcome,” Dr. Souza says. But if it works one time, the behaviour will be repeated. Similarly, if a gambler wins a couple of times at a slot machine, this leads to a higher belief of one’s skills, motivating him to bet more. This is especially true with pathological gamblers.

There are different kinds of illusions of control:

  • The gambler’s fallacy: Misusing information from past successful events to build strategy on future bets. “A win is just around the corner.” Many believe the more they gamble, the more they’ll win.
  • Superstitious behaviour: Dr. Souza’s mom’s dice rolling is an example.
  • Coincidental conditioning: The gambler sees an association with winning and his silly behaviour. So this earlier success will prompt him to repeat it in the hopes of achieving the same luck. Optimists are more likely to continue betting.
  • The near miss: A failure close to a win induces something powerful called ‘cognitive regret’. The only way to get rid of it is to play more. Near misses make gamblers feel like they won and increases their excitement. This keeps them gambling, even when they’re losing. Casinos and slot machine makers know this, so they engineer slots to come up with more near misses to encourage continuous play.

Gambling and the Brain

What happens to gambling addicts’ brains when they bet? Their midbrain, or ‘the pleasure centre of the brain’, lights up when they feel pleasure from gambling. The main neurotransmitter in this reward system is known as dopamine. When enough dopamine is released from the joy of betting, gamblers experience euphoria. So they are motivated to repeat that activity.

A study by Olds and Milner on rat behaviour had rats repeatedly press a button to stimulate this region of the brain at the expense of eating and other necessities. Behaviourist BF Skinner likens the rat’s console to a slot machine.

Pathological gamblers’ brains are conditioned into craving more to trigger their reward systems to the point where the mental makeup is altered. When gamblers reach this stage, they’re already addicted. Excessive gambling can lead to significant alterations in the way the brain changes and sends chemical messages. Gambling addicts often have psychological risk factors or genetic predispositions that make them susceptible.

The Psychology of Addiction

If the house always wins, why keep on betting? People addicted to gambling respond to the buzz that keeps reeling them in. It’s not about winning, but the process of betting and all other factors that make it enjoyable. The psychological factors explained above compel them to keep playing.

Psychologist Mark Griffiths from Nottingham Trent University, who specializes in behavioural addictions, says gamblers have many motivations for their habit. “Even when you’re losing while gambling, your body is still producing adrenalin and endorphins. In a survey of 5,500 gamblers, the prospect of the chance to ‘win big money’ was the strongest factor. But it was followed closely by ‘because it’s fun’ and ‘because it’s exciting’.”

A 2009 study by researchers from the University of Stanford in California confirmed this. They found that around 92% of people had ‘loss thresholds’ below which they would not go. But loss of money after visiting a casino did not affect their overall enjoyment of the experience.

Other factors that may have an influence

Genetics

Some people with family members struggling with gambling disorders are more likely to adopt the same addictive behaviour and tendencies. This doesn’t mean they will automatically become pathological gamblers. They just have to be more careful.

Medications

Some patients with Parkinson’s disease can develop impulse control disorders as a result of certain medications they take. These correct dopamine imbalances in the brain, but can also indirectly work on brain sections that control behaviour. Some law-abiding Parkinson’s sufferers may suddenly become compulsive gamblers.

Treatment options

  • Read books like The Easy Way to Stop Gambling: Take Control of Your Life by Allen Carr. He also offers online help.
  • Research your condition. The Journal of Gambling Issues (https://jgi.camh.net/index.php/jgi) publishes articles on gambling-related research, policy developments, and treatment programs. It is published by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and funded by Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care.
  • Phone and online help—many organisations list helplines on their websites.
  • The BC Responsible & Problem Gambling Program connects you with a counsellor or community resource in your area for free. Their 24-hour helpline number is 1 888 795 6111
  • British Columbia Lottery Corporation offers online and phone support. Other provinces, territories and states have organizations that offer similar support.
  • Gambling Therapy is a global service offering help to people with compulsive gambling problems.
  • Gamtalk—an online resource that helps problem gamblers. It offers live chatting with the community, a forum, and stories about recovery.
  • Gamblers Anonymous offers a 12-Step program that helps those struggling with gambling addiction. They host anonymous meetings where individuals can share experiences and support one other to stop gambling.
  • Gam-Anon offers a free 12-Step self-help fellowship for those affected by someone else’s gambling addiction.
  • Block access to gambling websites by using gambling blocking software or filtering tools. Gambling counsellors can recommend appropriate ones.
  • Sobriety apps exist mostly for substance use disorders, but the principles and strategies can be applied to gambling.
  • Hypnosis—also available online.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) changes the way people think about situations. It punishes gambling behaviour and rewards positive ones.
  • Voluntary self-exclusion: gamblers put themselves on a no-gamble list.
  • Medication management: drugs to reduce or suppress impulsivity include: antidepressants (including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors—SSRIs), mood stabilizers/anti-epileptics, opioid antagonists (such as naltrexone), atypical neuroleptics (such as olanzapine), and glutamatergic agents (such as N-acetyl cysteine). These may help in the treatment of impulse control and mood disorders, but no drugs are specifically approved to treat gambling disorders.
  • Habit reversal therapy was developed in the 1970s to treat stammering, tics and skin picking (from OCD Action). It helps substance and gambling addicts identify the actions and patterns of their addictive behaviours when they happens, then learn to replace these with something less harmful.
  • Impulse control treatment facilities are like rehab centres for drug addiction

Types of Gaming

BC Responsible Gambling lists some of the most common types of gambling:

Chance-based: 100% dependence on chance

  • Casino games: slot machines, progressive bonuses, bingo, roulette, Sic Bo, baccarat
  • Lottery products: 50/50 raffles, pull-tabs, scratch & win tickets, 6/49 lottery tickets, Lotto Max, Keno, Pacific Hold’em

Skill-based: Players have some influence, but still depends on chance

Players can use betting strategies, skills, knowledge-based techniques, or other players’ decisions and behaviour. Examples include: poker, blackjack, Pai Gow, Texas Shootout, horse race betting, and sports betting.

Responsible gambling tips and strategies

BC Responsible Gambling proposes the following strategies:

  • Plan ahead: arrange for leisure activities apart from gambling. It shouldn’t be the only form of entertainment.
  • Set a time limit and stick to it. Set an alarm and have someone call or pick you up.
  • Set a money limit. This should be entertainment money only, not funds budgeted for necessities. Leave your debit and credit cards at home.
  • Keep winnings instead of betting them back.
  • Don’t gamble if you’re depressed, lonely, anxious, or are experiencing insomnia or loss. Gambling to escape problems doesn’t work and may increase them or create new ones.
  • Don’t gamble alone. Have a friend with you who will ensure that you don’t spend all your time gambling.
  • Research your game before gambling. Know the odds of winning.
  • Keep a journal of time and money spent on gambling.
  • Take frequent breaks. There is no such thing as a ‘hot’ slot machine or seat. This counts as a reminder to check limits and emotional state. If one is feeling negative emotions and gambling isn’t fun anymore, it’s time to quit.
  • Have an exit strategy. Inform family and friends where you are. Arrange transport beforehand.
  • Have a backup plan if you run out of money.
  • Know when, where, and how to get help.

Hope for the compulsive gambler

Successfully managing one’s gambling disorder is very difficult, but it is a medical condition that can be treated. So it’s important to seek professional help. We hope that the addiction treatment options mentioned above can help sufferers live a compulsion-free life.

People like Justyn Larcombe, whose circumstances seemed hopeless but were resolved in the end, are real-life examples from whom the addicted can derive comfort. If they were able to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, so can those currently struggling.

Sources:

[1] Accessed at https://gamblershelp.com.au/learn-about-gambling/myths-about-gambling.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th edition). American Psychiatric Association. Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. 2013.

“What Are Disruptive, Impulse-Control, and Conduct Disorders?”. American Psychiatric Association. 2018.

Schreiber, L., Odlaug, B., and Grant, J. “Impulse Control Disorders: Updated Review of Clinical Characteristics and Pharmacological Management”. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 2(1). 2011.

Kusyszyn, Igor. “The Psychology of Gambling”. The Annals of the American Academy, AAPSS, 474, 133-145. July 1984.

Burns, et al. “An Exploratory Study of Lottery Playing, Gambling Addiction, and Links to Compulsive Consumption”. Advances in Consumer Research, volume 17. 1990. Rogers, Paul. “The Cognitive Psychology of Lottery Gambling: A Theoretical Review”. Journal of Gambling Studies, volume 14, issue 2, pp. 111–134. December 1998.

Photo credit: Marco Verch. This picture has a Creative Commons attribution license.