The Psychology of Gambling

Gambling is the wagering of something of value (money, for example) on a random event with the intent to win something else of value. It is often associated with risk and prize, but instances of strategy are discounted. There are many different forms of gambling, such as lottery tickets, scratch-offs, casino games and poker. People gamble for many reasons, from alleviating stress to socialising with friends. It can also trigger feelings of euphoria linked to the brain’s reward system. Some people are able to control their gambling, while others struggle to stop.

There is a strong link between mental health problems and gambling. People who have anxiety or depression are more likely to gamble, as are those with suicidal thoughts or impulses. These people need specialist support. In some cases, this may involve cognitive behavioural therapy, where a counsellor helps them to change their thinking around betting. In other cases, they might find it helpful to talk to a family member or someone who is not involved in their gambling.

The psychology of gambling is a complex topic, with much research focusing on individual behaviour, addiction and ‘rational’ action. However, a growing corpus of research is beginning to examine the wider socio-cultural contexts that shape and influence gambling behaviour.

Currently, there is no pharmacological treatment for pathological gambling disorder, but there are a number of treatments that can help with some of the symptoms, such as anxiety and depression. Psychotherapy can be useful in treating these issues as well, and there is also a range of self-help programmes available. Some of these programmes are based on peer support groups, such as Gamblers Anonymous, which is a 12-step recovery programme modelled on Alcoholics Anonymous.

People with a gambling problem can find it hard to admit that their gambling is out of control, and they might hide their behaviour or lie about how much they spend. They might also try to convince themselves that their problem is not a real one or that they can overcome it by winning big.

Managing your gambling involves making the right decisions and reducing the risk factors that make you vulnerable to problem gambling. Some of these are financial – avoid carrying debt, credit cards or large sums of money with you, and try to keep your bank accounts in the black. Other risks can include spending time with people who encourage you to gamble, using gambling venues as social spaces and being tempted by offers of free drinks or snacks. You can reduce your exposure to these risk factors by talking openly about your gambling with someone you trust, staying away from gambling venues and not gambling if you are feeling down or upset. If you are concerned about your mental health, seek advice from a doctor or call 999 or A&E if you have thoughts of suicide. Speak to your GP about referrals for psychological counselling and support services. There are also a number of charities that offer support, assistance and counselling for people with gambling problems.