Heather Johnston is appointed Executive Director of the Information and Referral Center of Greater Montréal
How can playing, a source of pleasure and fun, turn into a trap that is so difficult to get out of? Gambling addiction is the result of a combination of factors that, over time, can influence the gambler’s behaviour and relationship to gambling. What used to be mere entertainment then becomes a need: a game is no longer a game. Here’s an overview of the factors that can lead to addiction.
This factor is the root of the development of a gambling problem, since there are many opportunities to gamble close to home: casinos or gaming halls, video lottery terminals in bars, restaurants and neighbourhood pubs, convenience store or grocery store terminals… This increased presence of gambling opportunities contributes to shaping an environment where gambling is socially acceptable, encouraged and even promoted.
Not only that, but the availability of online gambling also contributes to addiction development, since any computer or smartphone can be used to gamble from the comfort of your home, at any time of the day or night. The closure of bars and casinos due to the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a sharp increase in online gambling.
If someone you know gambles, there is a greater chance that you will also start gambling. However, learning to gamble from relatives is usually done without risk prevention measures. You could therefore be quickly influenced by your loved one’s speech, who, for example, will more easily brag about their winnings than their losses to convince you to gamble, too.
When you start gambling, you expose yourself to a form of conditioning. The game’s rewards contribute to the development of errors in thinking that alter your perception and experience as a player. This is especially true when your first few games result in a series of smaller or larger wins, a phase often referred to as “beginner’s luck.” This illusion of luck creates a feeling of euphoria from your first experience with gambling and encourages you to try again. In reality, the brain memorizes wins more easily than losses and you are quickly convinced that your luck will soon change again: you are approaching the trap.
There are many psychological factors that can contribute to the development of an addiction, whether to gambling or to other behaviours or substances. Here are some examples:
These factors can create an emotional imbalance, making people more vulnerable to a gambling addiction.
Above all, the game should be entertainment. But it can quickly become a habit, even a routine. With the massive migration to online gambling, especially due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it is even more difficult to control the time spent gambling. When, for example, the slot machine is literally at arm’s length on your cell phone or computer, routines can quickly develop: a few games when you wake up, a few games during dinner, a few games in bed before going to sleep…
Of course, the lure of winning is one of the primary motivations for gambling. You’ve seen many times when complete strangers have made headlines for winning millions in a game. Why not you? The problem is that while these winners are highlighted in the media, they are the only winners among millions of unmentioned losers.
As gambling habits take hold, the lure of winning takes on a different form and a damage management mechanism emerges: as you accumulate losses, your desire to continue is motivated by the desire to “make it up.” This way you hold on to the hope of winning the jackpot to make up for all your lost bets. This trap is particularly powerful, since by persisting, you risk accumulating more and more losses, and thus feeding that need to make up for it, while at the same time pushing yourself further into problem gambling behaviour.
There is one element over which we have no power: chance. With it, intelligence and skill do not count. However, when faced with a game of chance, you spontaneously call upon your intelligence, as if it were a game of skill. You develop strategies, rituals. But it is all in vain. Chance is unpredictable and uncontrollable: it leaves us all powerless, whether we are intelligent or not.
Superstitions cannot influence chance either: blowing on the dice before throwing them, wearing a fetish garment, playing one’s “lucky” numbers..
In fact, the statistics are clear: the odds of losing are much higher than the odds of winning. Playing more will not make you win more. If, for example, the probability of winning a game is 1 in 100, and you have lost 99 times, you may not win the 100th time. This 1 in 100 probability is reset to zero with each new game. Only chance will decide, and there is nothing you can do about it.
In addition to the various factors presented above, excessive gambling, such as substance use such as alcohol or drugs, can be a means of addressing unmet need, ill-being, stress, etc. In general, gambling produces the effects we are looking for: suppressing emotions, forgetting problems…. but these effects are temporary. When they wear off, the problems are still there. The negative consequences of excessive gambling can even aggravate problems and increase the temptation to run away from them. This is called the Addiction Cycle. This cycle is illustrated by the following diagram:
Addiction is also based on a widely studied and known biochemical mechanism: disruption of the reward circuit.
When we perform a pleasant task, the brain produces dopamine, among other effects. Dopamine is one of the molecules responsible for the sensation of pleasure, which is why it is called the “pleasure molecule.” This molecule is a neurotransmitter secreted by the body when certain actions are performed: this is the reward circuit.
The main function of this reward circuit is to promote behaviours necessary for survival: drinking, eating, reproduction, etc. For example, when a person feels hunger, eating releases dopamine and gives the brain a feeling of pleasure and reward. The pleasure derived from these activities drives a person to repeat the activity, therefore ensuring survival.
These vital functions are not the only activities that cause us to secrete dopamine. For example, it can be secreted when gambling, using psychoactive substances, listening to music or playing sports.
To learn more, you can read the article Addiction and reward circuit on Drug: Help and Referral’s website.
To learn more about how problem gambling affects the brain, you can also visit the Brain Connections website. You’ll find many resources to better understand addiction and the brain. Here is a video explaining how addiction affects the brain:
If you’re concerned about your gambling or a loved one’s gambling you aren’t alone: call us at 1-800-461-0140 or use the chat room at the bottom right of the site. We can offer you customized support and information and refer you to resources adapted to your situation. Our services are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Sources: Politzer, Robert C., Charles E. Yesalis, and Clark J. Hudak. « The Epidemiologic Model and the Risk of Legalized Gambling: Where are we headed? », Health values 16 (1992), 20-27.