What is Gambling Disorder?

Gambling involves wagering something of value on a random event with the hope of winning another thing of value. While the majority of people who gamble do so without any problems, a subset develops what is known as gambling disorder, which is described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth Edition) as a persistent pattern of problematic gambling that causes significant distress or impairment.

Problematic gambling can affect a person’s physical and mental health, their relationships, work and performance, study and even cause them to break the law. In addition, gambling can lead to debt and homelessness. It’s also estimated that one person with a gambling addiction negatively impacts at least seven others.

There are many reasons why people gamble, including socializing, skill development and the potential for big wins. However, the negative effects of gambling become evident when a person is addicted to the activity and does not control it. Generally, the addiction to gambling results from a combination of factors such as boredom susceptibility, poor understanding of the likelihood of success or failure in different scenarios, an underlying personality trait, use of escape coping and stress inducing life events.

The psychological process behind gambling is similar to the addiction to any other substance or behavior. When people gamble, they experience a rush of dopamine in their brains, the same kind of reaction experienced when taking certain drugs. This dopamine response helps them to keep engaging in the behavior, even when it’s not providing any enjoyment or bringing any rewards. It’s a bit like trying to shoot baskets or throw darts into a board over and over again in order to get that elusive hole-in-one.

While gambling is often associated with money and risk, there are other forms of gambling that do not involve cash. For instance, players of marbles games, Pogs and Magic: The Gathering place wagers with their collectable game pieces that have a monetary value, rather than actual cash. Similarly, placing bets on the outcome of a sport or an event in a betting office is considered to be gambling and is regulated by governments around the world.

In recent years, our understanding of gambling and its adverse consequences has undergone a major transformation, similar to the way in which we now understand alcoholism. Previously, individuals who were unable to control their gambling were simply labeled as gamblers with problems; now they are considered to have a psychological illness. The change in understanding has influenced the way that pathological gambling is described and classified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Diseases. Nevertheless, the definition of problem gambling remains vague and subjective, making it difficult to establish clinical criteria for its diagnosis. This has led to inconsistent and conflicting results in research. Nevertheless, there is growing consensus that the primary cause of gambling disorders is impulsiveness, along with sensation and novelty-seeking, arousal, and a poor sense of risk. These factors may all be exacerbated by environmental cues that encourage gambling and a lack of effective behavioural disinhibition.