There is no simple answer to why or what causes people to gamble. The fact is that processes in the brain are hard to identify or measure completely. Just like our thoughts and behaviors are rarely black and white, gambling addiction is also influenced by our desires, thoughts, and behaviors, as well as our biology and genetics. However, there may be psychological processes that occur in someone experiencing gambling addiction.
Gambling disorder is characterized by persistent gambling that is difficult to stop or reduce despite experiencing significant negative consequences, harming either the gambler or another person. Gambling disorder is within the Substance-Related and Addictive Disorders section of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition (DSM-5).
However, having a gambling disorder does not mean the brain is “broken.” Similar to Substance Use Disorders, individuals diagnosed with Gambling Disorder may show increased dopamine transmission within the mesolimbic pathway of the brain in the presence of gambling-related cues. This neural activation has been associated with motivational processes. However, neural connections are plastic—meaning the brain constantly adjusts its structure and function in response to our interactions with our environment. So, somebody can unlearn reactions to gambling cues.
The Reward System
Everyone’s brain contains a mesolimbic pathway, sometimes called the “reward pathway,” which includes a collection of
dopamine-releasing neurons. This tract regulates motivation, reinforcement learning, response-reward (stimulus-reward), and other necessary functions. When a particular stimulus leads to a dopamine release, the brain learns to repeat the behavior that caused the release. Although everyone’s brain experiences this dopamine release, this cycle is often associated with addiction.
Again, having a gambling disorder does not mean the brain is “broken.” Understand that reward pathways and related neurotransmitters are part of everyday life. It is part of being happy and part of being motivated to do the things we do.
For someone with a gambling problem, however, there may be a lack of rewarding alternatives in their life. Others might struggle to control the urge or the impulse to place a bet. Further, life challenges or a history of life challenges or traumas may also make gambling engagement hard to control. Finally, some combination of these life events can lead to a strong desire to gamble. There also is a chance that the dopamine system may then become a coping mechanism that overrides any desire to stop gambling.
As psychologists, we also know that our thoughts, urges, impulses, and even our neural connections are able to be changed over time and with treatment to allow someone with gambling disorder to unlearn their addiction. If you or someone you know is struggling with gambling addiction, we at TGC are here to help.