Problem gamblers are people affected by gambling disorder, a form of non-substance-based behavioral addiction officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA).
Some researchers believe that there are three subtypes of problem gamblers, each with their own characteristic set of risk factors for the disorder.
In a study scheduled for publication in July 2014 in the journal Addictive Behaviors, a team of Canadian, Brazilian and American researchers used an international project conducted in Canada and Brazil to test the three-subtype model of gambling disorder in two culturally diverse environments.
The APA refers to behavioral disorders as addictive disorders and groups them in a larger diagnostic category that also includes substance-based addiction and substance abuse.
People affected by a behavioral or addictive disorder experience many of the key dysfunctional behavior and brain function changes classically associated with substance addiction, but have problems that don’t center on substance use.
A range of non-substance-related activities can potentially serve as the focal point for a behavioral disorder, including such things as gambling, sex, food consumption and internet use. However, as of 2014, the APA considers gambling disorder to be the only officially diagnosable behavior-based condition.
Gambling disorder symptoms
People with gambling disorder have symptoms that can include:
- gambling in increasingly risky ways
- losing the ability to control gambling participation
- using gambling as an escape from unpleasant or unwanted emotions
- devoting excessive amounts of time and resources to gambling
- lying about gambling participation
In addition to problem gambling, terms used to describe identical or near-identical problems in the past include compulsive gambling and pathological gambling.
Three different pathways/subtypes to development of gambling disorder
Past and current research indicates that there may be three distinct pathways to the development of gambling disorder.
In one proposed pathway, called the behavioral conditioning subtype, an individual develops problems after gaining increasing access to gambling opportunities and growing accustomed to or conditioned to the mental/emotional changes that occur during gambling participation.
A second proposed pathway, called the emotionally vulnerable subtype, stems from the same basic circumstances as the behavioral conditioning subtype; however, it also includes an emotionally susceptible mindset associated with such things as mental illness, inadequate coping skills and/or traumatic life experiences.
The third proposed pathway, called the antisocial impulsive subtype, stems from the same basic mental health issues that can affect individuals in the emotionally vulnerable subtype; however, it specifically includes an unusually impulsive mindset and symptoms associated with the mental illness known as antisocial personality disorder.
International comparisons of the three subtypes of problem gamblers
In the study published in Addictive Behaviors, the multinational research team used information gathered from 352 Canadian adults and 140 Brazilian adults to test the three-subtype model of gambling disorder and to determine if cultural differences can alter the usefulness of this model.
Of the Canadian study participants, 214 had diagnosable symptoms of gambling disorder (pathological gambling), while the remaining 138 had gambling problems but did not meet the criteria for making an official diagnosis. All of the Brazilian study participants had gambling-related problems serious enough to warrant a diagnosis. The researchers used a test called the Temperament and Character Inventory to assess the personalities of both the Canadian and Brazilian participants, then used statistical analysis to compare these assessments to the three proposed subtypes.
After completing their analysis, the researchers concluded that their results fit better into a two-part framework than into a three-part framework. This framework included the behavioral conditioning subtype and the emotionally vulnerable subtype, but did not include the antisocial impulsive subtype. The behavioral conditioning subtype was populated entirely by Canadian study participants, while the emotionally vulnerable subtype included both Canadian and Brazilian participants.
Interestingly, when the researchers excluded the Canadians with gambling problems not serious enough to merit an official diagnosis, they found that all of the remaining study participants fit well into a single type with emotionally vulnerable characteristics.
Impact of intensity of gambling-related problems
The authors of the study published in Addictive Behaviors believe that the intensity of a person’s gambling-related symptoms may have a bigger impact on his or her subtype classification than any cultural considerations. However, they note that their results may not apply to other cultural settings, or to all people affected by gambling-related issues. They believe that additional vital information on gambling disorder subtypes may be gained from future research that focuses on the biological differences found in the brains of people affected by serious gambling problems.