Gambling is the betting or staking of something of value (such as money, items, services, or collectible game pieces) with an awareness of risk and hope of gain. It can also refer to an uncertain event whose outcome may be determined by chance, luck, or skill.
Most people gamble at some time or another, from placing a bet to purchasing a lottery ticket. But gambling is more than just a recreational activity—it can have serious psychological consequences. Problem gambling can affect a person’s physical and mental health, relationships, job or school performance, and finances. It can even lead to homelessness and suicide.
Problem gambling can occur in any form of gambling, from a dice roll to scratching off tickets to playing online slots. While some forms of gambling require a high level of skill (e.g., card games and horse races), others do not – and are therefore considered to be a form of pure chance. In the latter case, it is the randomness of the event that makes it a form of gambling, rather than the presence or absence of skill.
Uncertainty is the hallmark of most forms of gambling, and plays a significant role in determining its addictiveness. The brain releases dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter associated with enjoyable activities such as eating, sex and drugs, in response to uncertainty – and dopamine levels increase even more during moments leading up to potential rewards. This anticipation effect is thought to play a major role in addiction and reinforces risk-taking behavior.
Understanding the nature of gambling and problem gambling can help family members, friends and co-workers respond to these behaviours in a helpful way. However, only the person exhibiting these behaviours can decide to stop. For those struggling with this issue, counselling can be useful in helping them consider their options and solve problems.
Some individuals use gambling for coping reasons – to forget their worries, for example. This doesn’t absolve them of their responsibility, but it can help us understand their behaviour better if we recognise that they’re not trying to be dishonest or deceptive.
Pathological gambling (PG) is characterized by persistent and recurrent maladaptive patterns of gambling behaviors. It can be hard to recognize and diagnose, since it often develops in adolescence or young adulthood and can take many forms, from socially interactive forms of gambling such as poker or blackjack to nonstrategic, less interpersonally interactive forms of gambling such as slot machines or bingo. The criteria for PG are set out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association. Various approaches to treatment of PG have been proposed, but they have had only limited success. This is perhaps because they do not address the underlying issues of PG, or are based on eclectic theoretic conceptualizations of it. However, new hybrid treatments that combine these approaches have shown promising results.