Gambling is regularly villainized by the media and blamed for financial ruin, broken homes and ruined lives. While this biased viewpoint is easy to take it is unfounded and often hypocritical, especially when those who hold and propagate it regularly buy lottery tickets and even enjoy an occasional wager on their favourite horse race.
The press is also responsible for the portrayal of gambling addicts as degenerates and social misfits who only have themselves to blame for becoming part of a destructive cycle. As with most issues in life, there is considerably more to gambling addiction and the psychology of gambling than one would think, some of which take place on a biological level.
If you’ve ever purchased a lottery ticket, attended a bingo night or put money into your local pub fruity slot machines this means that you have gambled but you may not be addicted. The question remains why do some people end up becoming addicted while others can simply enjoy these simple forms of gambling without any issues?
A study in 2005 at Washington University revealed that around 80% of the US population takes part in gambling activities, yet the addiction rate is as low as 1.8%. The question is why the 1.8% are addicted to gambling, while the large majority of the population is not? Researchers have asked just that question and have focused their sites on whether the answer could lie in our DNA.
According to researchers, Dopamine, the so called “happy chemical” may have something to do with it as this chemical plays a larger role than any other when it comes to people’s penchant for gambling. In fact this chemical is related to all addictions and is directly linked to the feeling of pleasure released when you enjoy a favourable experience. It is also stimulated when you win on the lotto, a round of bingo or on your favourite casino game. This feeling of happiness and euphoria is actually the basis of the addiction and so people chase the “high” repeatedly. We don’t all become addicted to the high and most of the population can control it and themselves, but there is a minority who can’t and experience a problem.
In fact, Research by The Addiction Science Research and Education Center at the University of Texas has shown it isn’t the occurance of dopamine which causes a problem but rather the lack of the body’s response to it. As with drug abusers who continually have to increase their dosages to achieve a high, people with a tendency to addictive gambling need increasing dopamine levels to achieve the same sensation that others do.
This means that individuals whose body’s have a biological tendency to produce excess levels of dopamine are more likely to experience addictive tendencies than those with normal levels of the chemical. Obviously this is not something that can be controlled without assistance so it is unreasonable to blame an addict for addiction.
That said though, an imbalance in dopamine levels does not necessarily mean that an individual will definitely develop a gambling addiction, or any other addiction for that matter. There are also many other contributing factors that can either foster or discourage a gambling addiction, making dopamine only contributory factor, albeit a very important one. One the largest influencing factors apart from dopamine is the environment surrounding the potential addict. If they are restricted from gambling they can’t possibly develop an addiction. Furthermore, social circumstances are often an influencing factor discouraging gambling addiction. Frequently there is a negative stigma attached to gambling, especially within certain religious belief sets, and the fear or potential shame of being shunned overrides the need to gamble.
In other cases, a person’s personality might be the reason why addiction does not develop. Continual anxiety over losing money or simply a large dose of common sense can cause dopamine effects to be negated. However during times of impaired judgment caused by stress or personal issues, gambling may become a form of release which opens the door to addiction as dopamine levels increase countering the feeling of anxiety and potentially leading to addiction after the stressful time passes.
When abnormal levels of dopamine are present in a person, an addiction to gambling can be a risk, however a trigger is generally required in order to transform the individual into a full-blown gambling addict, as opposed to someone who gambles occasionally and controls their urges effectively.
What To Do If You Have An Addiction
If you think you or your loved one may have a gambling addiction, seek professional help as soon as possible. There are a number of organizations that can assist you such as Gamblers Anonymous and GamCare, both of which are equipped to offer professional advice on dealing with your problem.