Why People Gamble,
and Gambling Addiction
Last update: August 2018
The casino's psychological tricks
Casino games exploit psychology to get us to play. That's no accident. Researcher Natasha Dow Schüll charges that game makers intentionally try to make their games addictive, making her case in her book Addiction by Design. Kevin Harrigan at the University of Waterloo has done considerable research into the addictive properties of gambling games, especially slot machines. Even when game features don't result in full-blown addiction, they do get people to play longer than they would have otherwise.
Scientists discovered long ago we're more interested in
something when the rewards are inconsistent. Psychologist
B.F. Skinner conducted a famous experiment in the 1960s in which
test pigeons got a food pellet if they pressed a lever. When
Skinner modified the lever so that it sometimes randomly awarded a
pellet and sometimes didn't, the pigeons pressed the lever more.
Some games, like electromechanical slots, are designed with a
"near-miss" feature that frequently shows the jackpot symbol
just above or below the payline, leading the player to (wrongly)
think that she almost landed it. In reality, though the symbol
was physically close, it wasn't mathematically close. (more
on why this happens) And as you might suspect, research
shows that the near-miss effect keeps people playing longer.
Video slots also have a feature that researchers call "losses
disguised as wins" (LDW). That's when you win something
on your spin, but it's less than it cost you to spin. For
example, you bet $1.50, and won 80¢. These "wins" are
accompanied by positive graphics and sounds reinforcing that you've
"won". And this kind of misdirection works. As one
researcher noted, "The visual and auditory stimuli were also found
to contribute to elevated arousal, as indexed by skin conductance
level. Problem gamblers were found to prefer games offering LDWs
more than non-problem gamblers."
Studies show that men gamble more for the adrenaline rush, or to bolster their masculinity, while women gamble more to be part of an escapist fantasy, or to be sociable. (Problem Gambling Institute of Ontario, Electronic Journal of Gambling Issues)
Inexplicably, often when someone wins a huge jackpot, say $1 million or more, they immediately go right back to playing slots! I don't mean the next day or the next week, but just minutes later, like the person who won $2.9 million on the Wizard of Oz slot in December 2010. (LV Review-Journal) The question becomes, why were they gambling in the first place? It can't be that they were chasing a big win, because once they got the big win, they didn't act like they'd achieved their goal.
Something else I've witnessed: people playing slots without any hint of emotion, just spin spin spin. Even when they hit a nice payout, they don't get happy or excited, they just wait for it to tally up and then they immediately continue to spin spin spin. That's not entertainment, that's compulsion.
Here's my rule of thumb: If you're smiling when you're playing, then it's entertainment. If you're not smiling, then you're not really having fun, and ought to consider quitting, or at least taking a break.
For years it's been fashionable to blame addicts for their addiction. I can control myself, the thinking goes, so why can't they? Well, the difference is that the way some people's brains are simply wired make them extremely susceptible to addiction. The reason you're not an addict isn't because you're the paragon of self-control; you're not an addict because you got lucky biologically. Other people haven't been so lucky.
For years the research focused exclusively on what prompts people to gamble too much. More recent research has focused on why people can't control their behavior. It turns out that in people with addictive behaviors, the part of the brain responsible for limiting reckless or impulsive actions is underdeveloped or not working properly. This discovery could mean we're one step closer to offering better treatments to people who suffer from all kinds of addiction, not just gambling addiction.
Related to this, certain prescription drugs encourage gambling behavior, especially those used to treat Parkinson's Disease. A friend of mine with not much gambling history suddenly became a compulsive gambler after he started taking medicine for Parkinson's. It sent his life into a downward spiral, which tragically resulted in his engagement to the woman he loved being called off. (Fortunately, once he realized the connection to the meds, he switched to different medication and now has been completely gambling-free, but sadly it was too late for his relationship.)
Even if you're inclined to blame a gambling addict for his or her situation, how do you blame the innocents affected by the addiction? It's not just the problem gamblers' lives which get ruined, it's their families' lives as well. College funds drained, retirement money vanishing, divorce, you name it. These are devastating results to the spouses and children of the problem gambler. Sometimes a gambler's employer is negatively affected: More than one business has folded because of an employee embezzling money to feed a gambling habit.
The good news is that it's definitely possible for individuals who gamble compulsively to stop. (American Journal of Psychiatry, Natl. Center for Responsible Gaming) Here's some online help for gambling addiction.
Casinos don't simply provide the games and hope you play. They do everything in their power to get you to play, and to play more. Even if they know you have a gambling addiction. (See The Atlantic's "How Casinos Enable Gambling Addicts".) I advocate specific reforms to prevent casinos from preying on players, especially addicted players.