Gambling: Pathological Decision‐Making

Abstract

Gambling is an instance of risky decision‐making where money is staked on the uncertain prospect of a larger outcome. While commercial gambling is widely recognised to have a negative expected value (generated by the ‘house edge’), gambling is highly prevalent in most countries. It is also a behaviour that becomes dysfunctional for a minority of gamblers, and ‘gambling disorder’ is conceptualised as a form of behavioural addiction. Psychological theories of gambling should explain both the sheer existence of this behaviour within human decision‐making and its potential to become addictive. Contemporary approaches are considered, drawing upon conditioning, cognitive psychology, relevant personality variables and underlying neurobiology.

Key Concepts

  • Gambling is a prevalent form of recreational risk‐taking.
  • Gambling disorder has been reclassified recently as an addictive disorder in the DSM‐5 and is thereby the first recognised behavioural addiction.
  • Motivational and cognitive accounts propose that gambling disorder is acquired and maintained through reinforcement learning and distorted beliefs about the probability of events.
  • Impulsivity is a risk factor for gambling disorder, supported by prospective research.
  • Neurobiological studies support the overlap between gambling disorder and substance use disorders, with characteristic changes in dopamine and the brain reward system.

Keywords: addiction; risk‐taking; dopamine; impulsivity; conditioning

Figure 1. The neural basis of gambling‐related cognitive distortions. The slot machine task (top left) displayed two reels: one icon was selected on the left reel and the right reel then spun and stopped to a standstill. Matching icon delivered wins; if the right reel landed one position from a match (as shown), this was considered a near‐miss. After each outcome, participants rated their motivation to ‘continue to play the game’. Healthy participants rate their motivation to continue as higher following near‐miss outcomes compared to ‘full‐misses’ (which do not land adjacent to the payline). The response was abolished in neurological patients with lesions affecting the insula region. Using functional MRI in healthy participants, near‐misses also increase neural signal in the ventral striatum and anterior insula, in regions that overlap with the strong response to jackpot wins on the task. Insula activity to near‐misses is also predicted by scores on the Gambling‐Related Cognitions Scale (GRCS), a questionnaire assessing the susceptibility to various gambling‐related biases. Data reprinted from Clark et al. (2009, 2014).
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Further Reading

Binde P (2005) Gambling across cultures: mapping worldwide occurrence and learning from ethnographic comparison. International Gambling Studies 5 (1): 1–27.

Blaszczynski A and Nower L (2002) A pathways model of problem and pathological gambling. Addiction 97 (5): 487–499..

Clark L (2014) Disordered gambling: the evolving concept of behavioral addiction. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1327 (1): 46–61.

Hodgins DC , Stea JN and Grant JE (2011) Gambling disorders. Lancet 378 (9806): 1874–1884.

Leeman RF and Potenza MN (2012) Similarities and differences between pathological gambling and substance use disorders: a focus on impulsivity and compulsivity. Psychopharmacology (Berlin) 219 (2): 469–490.

Reber AS (2012) The EVF model: a novel framework for understanding gambling and, by extension, poker. Gaming Research and Review Journal 16 (1): 59–76.

Slutske WS , Moffitt TE , Poulton R and Caspi A (2012) Undercontrolled temperament at age 3 predicts disordered gambling at age 32: a longitudinal study of a complete birth cohort. Psychological Science 23 (5): 510–516.

Stewart SH , Zack M , Collins P and Klein RM (2008) Subtyping pathological gamblers on the basis of affective motivations for gambling: relations to gambling problems, drinking problems, and affective motivations for drinking. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors 22 (2): 257–268.

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Tobias‐Webb, Juliette, and Clark, Luke(Mar 2015) Gambling: Pathological Decision‐Making. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0025788]