Gambling involves placing something of value – usually money – at risk in an event with an element of chance, and with the potential to win a larger amount of money. This can include bets on sports, horse racing, football matches, scratchcard games, dice, and even the lottery.
People who are addicted to gambling can suffer from a range of symptoms, including impulsivity, difficulty controlling impulses and an inability to weigh risks against rewards. They may become obsessed with gambling to the point of affecting their work, family, and relationships. Their gambling behaviour can also affect their mental health, leading to depression and anxiety.
Psychological treatments are available to help with gambling disorder. These may include cognitive behaviour therapy, which helps people change their beliefs about the odds of winning and how skill can be influenced by luck in non-skills-based games. Medications can also be used to treat addiction to gambling, but they have mixed results. Some studies have found that they can improve a person’s mood, while others have found that they are not very effective at treating pathological gambling.
The effectiveness of treatment for problem gambling has been limited by our understanding of the underlying causes of the disorder. Research is now focusing on identifying risk factors and determining how gambling disorder develops, progresses, and maintains. Until we understand these factors, it will be difficult to develop more effective treatments.
Longitudinal (repeated-measurement) research is an important tool in the development of theory and practice in this area. Following individuals over time provides the opportunity to identify and measure variables that moderate and exacerbate gambling participation. In addition, longitudinal data allow researchers to infer causality – for example, to see whether a change in one variable such as age or economic circumstances is related to a change in gambling participation.
Gambling is considered a psychological activity because it combines elements of chance and skill, and can lead to feelings of excitement and anticipation. It can be a way to self-soothe unpleasant emotions or boredom, but there are other healthier ways to do this, such as exercise, spending time with friends who don’t gamble, and trying relaxation techniques.
Some people become addicted to gambling because of a genetic predisposition to thrill-seeking behaviour and impulsivity. Other risk factors can include childhood trauma and social inequality, particularly in women. Symptoms of gambling disorder can start at any age, but they tend to be more prevalent in adolescence and older adulthood.
Many people begin gambling as a leisure activity but end up losing control of their finances and their lives. They often lie to their families, therapists, and employers to conceal their involvement in gambling; they may even commit illegal acts to fund their addiction (e.g., forgery, fraud, theft, embezzlement), jeopardizing or sacrificing relationships, careers, and educational opportunities in the process. They often feel a sense of helplessness and guilt after losing money, and may continue to gamble in the hope of getting back what they have lost (“chasing” their losses). They may even spend more than they can afford to lose, creating a debt that they cannot repay.