The Psychology of Gambling

Gambling has been a popular source of entertainment for centuries across a variety of cultures and today is still a thriving industry in both land based and online casino formats. While it is a popular pastime for millions, others just don’t understand it at all and shake their heads in amazement as people supposedly “throw away” their hard earned cash to the house which “always wins”.  These two very different schools of thought have raised the question of the psychology of gambling, its attraction and why it becomes an addiction for some and not others.

A vast array of ongoing research into these and numerous other topics related to gambling are being conducted by researchers and universities the world over.  Brain imaging techniques have proved a popular method in determining just how our brains work when it comes to gambling and have found that repeated gambling has a lot to do with inherent nature, conditioning and people’s belief sets, rather than just the fact that gambling is fun (although that plays a role too). Here are some of the findings:

The Desire to Gamble

In principle the desire to gamble is simple and goes back to early childhood, there are many chances children, teens and adults take based on the hope that a perceived risk will achieve a certain reward for example, auditioning for a role in school play may result in failure but it could help one achieve success and popularity, asking someone out on a date runs the risk of rejection but it also hold opportunities for fun, friendship and intimacy.  Many of us are discouraged from so called “risky” behaviour by our parents or authority figures and we do not follow through on the desired behaviour that will achieve the perceived reward, this short circuits the process and we move on to more acceptable behaviours.  However, many of us do follow through on our desires and as soon as the reward is achieved, endorphins (also known as “feel good hormones”) and dopamine are released and the risk behavior is reinforced.  This is called conditioning


The concept of Conditioning is based on the findings of an experiment conducted by Pavlov on dogs wherein Pavlov rang a bell every time he provided food for the dogs, after a short period the mere ringing of the bell would induce salivation in the dogs without the presentation of food.  Gambling works the same way.

Modern research shows a reliable pattern of elevated brain activity in the striatum region of the brain (a main player in the rewards circuit and response to natural reinforcers such as food and sexual stimuli as well as drugs) when human test subjects engage in gambling activities and enjoy monetary rewards through wins, experience “near misses” and the ability to make choices within the game.

The prospect of financial gain reinforces the gambling behavior even when a win is not present and over the long term intermittent conditioning (which means rewards may be offered intermittently as found in casino games) allows for the gambling activity to continue in spite of periods devoid of wins.

The Feeling of Control

Whether you’re gambling on slot machines, blackjack, roulette or horses, in the long term the house always carries the advantage which makes casinos a sustainable and profitable business.  Knowing this, many people still gamble and research into why is ongoing.

It has been found that gamblers and especially problem gamblers regularly over-estimate their chances of winning.  Gambling games are also designed in such a way that the gambler feels like they are in control and that failure to win is accredited to “near misses“.  Research has shown that even moderate frequencies of near-misses encourage prolonged gambling activities, even in individuals who do not gamble regularly but problem gamblers often interpret “near-misses” as proof of game mastery and believe that a win is imminent.

Personal choice is an additional factor contributing to the illusion of control in gamblers and of course, choices are present in almost every casino game or bet.  Lotteries allow players to pick their own numbers or allow the machine to do it for them, many slot games offer bonus screens where the player will need to pick X of Y in order to determine the amount of money or spins they win. 

It is believed that both “near misses” and personal choice factors within gambling games lead gamblers to believe that skill can be exerted over an outcome that is in fact defined by mostly by chance.

Keeping a balance

From the above you can see that there is a whole lot more going on inside your head than you may originally have thought when gambling.  As with any activity, moderation and balance are always key and it is essential to put specific checks in place like setting up a budget and sticking to it no matter what,  or having the casino lock your players account and seeking help if you feel like you are developing an addiction.

Gambling is fun but addiction isn’t so always play responsibly.