Why Do People Gamble?

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March is Problem Gambling Awareness Month, and while the majority of people can gamble without developing a problem, there are millions of Americans who struggle with gambling addiction. With the rising accessibility of online gambling and sports betting, people are more at risk than ever for developing an addiction to gambling. 

Understanding Why People Gambling

In order to break the stigma surrounding gambling addiction, we need to better understand the reasoning behind why people gamble. No one starts gambling thinking that they’ll become addicted. People from all walks of life can develop a gambling disorder, regardless of their socioeconomic status or quality of personal relationships. 

Here are 5 incentives that cause people to gamble initially:

  1. Social aspect: Gambling can be a very social activity. Whether it’s a group of friends going to a sports game and placing bets, a poker night at a friend’s house, or attending a party at a casino and playing the slots, gambling can be an interactive event.

    Gambling with real money makes the game that much more competitive, which some would view as being more fun. Some sports fans don’t even like to watch sports unless they have placed a bet on the game.

  2. Risk: It’s human nature to desire taking risks, which is why the uncertain outcome of gambling is so appealing. The mere potential for winning, no matter how much a person has lost, is enough to keep people coming back. The more money that is wagered, the higher the risk, which increases the excitement of the gamble.
  3. Boredom/Loneliness: For many, gambling is simply something to do, a way to pass the time. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people turned to online gambling to curb their restlessness and cope with the loneliness that stemmed from lockdowns and social isolation.

    Unfortunately, as one builds up a tolerance to gambling, regular activities and hobbies will become boring in comparison with gambling, because they are not getting the same level of dopamine that gambling produces.

  4. Escape from unpleasant emotions: Some people turn to gambling as a way to cope with their stress, anxiety, or depression. It could be seen as “taking the edge off,” similarly to the way people like to unwind with a drink after a long day. The important thing is to get to the root of the emotions that one is trying to escape, so that they can no longer feel the need to gamble.
  5. Solution for financial difficulties: While everyone who gambles hopes to win some extra money, some people gamble out of desperation for money, and believe that gambling could be a quick solution for their financial troubles. 

However, the reality is that gambling takes more than it ever gives. If you win, you will keep coming back in an attempt to win more; if you lose, you will keep coming back in an attempt to win back what you’ve lost. Ultimately, there is no winning when it comes to gambling. 

One thing that is important to understand is that developing a gambling addiction is not a moral failure, or a lack of willpower. It gets to a point where gambling is no longer an active choice, but a compulsion, which makes it very difficult to stop.

A gambling addiction actually changes the brain’s chemistry, and over time, the gambler develops a tolerance to gambling. The gambler’s brain starts producing less and less dopamine on its own, which causes them to need to gamble in order to get a normal dosage of dopamine. 

When Gambling Becomes a Problem

Why do some people become addicted to gambling, while others can gamble casually? In most cases, there is an underlying reason or mental illness that causes a person to gamble compulsively.

Many people turn to gambling in the same way that others turn to alcohol. Had a stressful day at work? Maybe placing a few bets will help ease the tension. Feeling anxious about your upcoming test? Gambling serves as a temporary distraction. 

Gambling is a major problem when the gambler sees the detriment that gambling is causing in their life, but continues to gamble anyways. The gambler becomes obsessed with the thought of gambling, and may resort to borrowing or stealing money from friends or family members in order to fund their addiction. 

Compulsive gamblers become addicted to the act of gambling – regardless of whether they are winning or losing. They get caught up in the thrill of uncertainty. In fact, many compulsive gamblers who have also experienced drugs, say that the high they got from gambling was greater than or equal to the high they got from a drug. 

man feeling guilty with head in hands

Unfortunately, gambling is so normalized in our society that many people think that they can gamble without any type of risk. Problem gamblers may even try to justify their actions and convince themselves that they don’t have a problem by saying that everyone gambles, and it’s not a big deal. 

But just like drinking too much causes a hangover the next day, a gambler rarely feels good after they gamble. There are often physical symptoms like headaches or fatigue, accompanied by a sense of panic and regret at how much money they spent the night before. 


Why People Hide Their Gambling Addiction

Gamblers feel the need to hide their addiction because of the stigma associated with gambling, and addiction in general. Compulsive gamblers are often perceived as being people who are irresponsible, selfish, and manipulative, and people with addictions are looked down upon in society. The stigma is even higher for women, who are generally expected to be more responsible than men, and the caregiver in a family. 

In the thick of their addiction, the gambler may believe that they can solve their own problem before anyone has to find out about it. They will try to win back the money they have lost, which only ends up fuelling their addiction more. 

The stigma around gambling addiction prevents gamblers from seeking the help that they desperately need. They don’t want people to look at them differently, or look down on them, so they keep their issue private. 

Is There Hope After Gambling Addiction?

Recovery from gambling addiction is certainly possible, but it takes a lot of internal work from the individual. Recovery is about more than just quitting gambling – it is about addressing the underlying issues that were causing the person to gamble in the first place. Until these issues are properly addressed and worked on, there cannot be a successful long term recovery. 

If you are suffering from a gambling addiction, it’s best to speak up about it as soon as possible, rather than down the road. Speaking up will help prevent the problem from getting worse, and you can work towards moving forward in your life. 


How You Can Help Reduce the Stigma 

We need your help to reduce the stigma surrounding gambling addiction, so that compulsive gamblers feel comfortable enough to be upfront and honest about their problem, rather than feeling the need to hide it and suffer in silence. 

Here are a few ways you can help:

  • Educate yourself about gambling addiction. Visit the National Council on Problem Gambling to learn more about gambling addiction and Problem Gambling Awareness month.  You can also learn about gambling addiction by visiting our problem gambling blog. 
  • Show compassion to those who struggle. Don’t be so quick to judge them or label them. 
  • Know that everyone is susceptible to becoming addicted. Gambling addicts are not weaker than others. 

Treatment for Gambling Addiction

If you struggle with gambling addiction, you are not alone. Over the course of 30 years, we at Algamus have helped thousands of men and women overcome gambling addiction and create a meaningful life for themselves.

Our residential treatment program, located in Prescott, Arizona, consists of cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, Gamblers Anonymous meetings, individualized aftercare planning, and more.

For more information about our treatment program and how Algamus can help you or a loved one, speak to one of our gambling counselors.