Why Some People Just Can’t Stop Gambling

It can seem confounding why some people squander hundreds, thousands – even everything they have — at the craps or poker table, or spinning the roulette wheel. (That’s true even if you are one of those people.) It’s a puzzle that’s difficult to piece together since a variety of factors are at play, tricking the brain into irrational decision-making. In fact, the compulsion to make another bet, even when doing so goes against sound judgment, can be so strong and so destructive that gambling disorder has earned a place next to substance addiction (what’s called substance use disorder by clinicians) in the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5. To better understand the riddle of gambling addiction, here are four tricks of the mind that experts say make it feel impossible for some people to stop wagering:

  1. The Big-Win Memory

The memory of past wins pushes aside the experience of losing and tempts us to bet again. That’s according to a new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. “The story of that one time you went to a casino with $50 and walked out with $1,000 trumps the many, many times you went and lost,” says Eliot Ludvig, a researcher at the University of Warwick in the U.K. and lead author of the study. “A big win is an extreme outcome and that’s what we tend to remember.”

You won’t be surprised to hear that our memories inform our decision-making. When we face a new experience, we’re risk-averse, says Ludvig, but that changes once we create memories of what it’s like to go through that experience. The positive feeling we get from seeing change pouring out of the slot machine, the roulette wheel landing on our number or raking in chips takes root in the brain and may draw us toward future gambling. This facet of human nature is something casinos use to their advantage. “All those flashing lights and whirring slot machines remind us of past wins,” Ludvig explains. “Our risky decisions are very susceptible to the memories those sights and sounds elicit.” In his study, participants played a video game that paired pictures of various fruits with winning or losing, much like a slot machine does. After playing for a while, participants shown the winning fruit — say, a strawberry — for only half a second were 15% more likely to gamble. Participants shown the losing fruit felt no increased urge to bet.

To combat those pernicious memories urging you to wager, Ludvig suggests trying harder to remember the losses. “Think about how bad it felt to lose money rather than the one big win,” he says, acknowledging that “that’s easier said than done.”

  1. The Illusion of Control

Maybe it’s your lucky socks or that special seat for the big game; when you sit there your team always wins (or it seems that way, anyway). “We all have superstitions,” says Timothy Fong, PhD, co-director of the UCLA Gambling Studies Program. “But addicted gamblers become overly confident and believe they can control the outcome of events.” That is, a lucky charm gives the compulsive gambler false confidence that he or she won’t crap out, the dealer will hand them aces or their horse will take the race. That false confidence leads to increasingly risky and reckless decisions. One reason a gambler can’t recognize the illusion of the control over winning is because that feeling is pervasive, according to a study in Frontiers of Psychology. Researchers found that addicted gamblers felt more in control over all aspects of their daily lives, not just gambling, than people who weren’t addicted to betting.

  1. The Gambler’s Fallacy

Addicted gamblers often forget about the true odds of a bet. Instead, they feel superior to the odds and able to predict what will happen. For example, while the odds on a roulette table never change, a compulsive gambler might insist that red is due to come up and make a large bet accordingly. “It doesn’t feel good to give up that mystical and magical feeling that you know where the wheel will land or you know what card is coming,” says Dr. Fong. “But [changing that] is essential to rewiring the brain and recovering from the addiction.”

The gambler’s fallacy also leads people to shrug off impossibly long odds. The inability to understand the close-to-zero chance of winning a lottery won’t stop imprudent betting. “It’s hard for most people to comprehend what one-in-a-million really means,” says Ludvig. “But when you’re betting a lot based on the outcome — like winning a jackpot — instead of the odds, which are pretty much zero, you’re setting yourself up for a financially ruinous decision.” Unfortunately, research shows that the illusion of control and the gambler’s fallacy often go hand-in-hand.

  1. The Near-Miss Reward

The brain naturally seeks pleasure and reward. For those who are addicted to gambling, the reward center also lights up when they almost win. That is, when the slot machine lines up two cherries and the third just misses, the brain of someone who compulsively bets reacts in a way that elicits a pleasurable feeling that’s very similar to a win, according to a 2014 study in the journal Neuroimage.

When the brain produces chemicals that make losing almost as satisfying as winning, then “[s]omething is not working right and there’s a chemical change that can’t stop the gambling behavior,” notes Fong. “It’s crucial to increase the motivation to do other activities that feel good.” He suggests exercise, socializing and perhaps most important, joining a support group.

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