The Role of Psychology in Gambling

Studies have demonstrated the influence of emotions on decision-making processes; this is particularly evident when gambling.

The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) now recognizes problem gambling as an addiction, reflecting research showing its similarities to substance abuse or other addictive behaviors.


Psychological motivations for gambling are diverse and complex, yet most commonly reported are distraction from worries, responsibilities and emotional distress. Gambling provides an escape from worries or obligations and emotional pain which may explain why pathological gamblers continue to gamble when chasing losses motivates them (Clark et al. 2004). Mesolimbic dopamine (DA) release during gambling episodes exceeds controls by approximately threefold; it is thought to facilitate this incentive motivation.

Mood can have an enormous effect on judgement and decision-making by directly biasing decisions. A pleasant or unpleasant feeling may sway individuals to favor short-term enhancements over potentially detrimental long-term impacts (Gray 1999).

Experimental tasks designed to explore cognitive factors underlying persistent gambling have implicated the prefrontal cortex. One such task, designed to capture the gambler’s fallacy – in which participants mistakenly believe that their winning streak will soon end – results in increased neural responses in left LPFC. Furthermore, recent research found that high emotion differentiation (i.e. being able to differentiate positive and negative emotions) correlates with reduced likelihood of experiencing the gambler’s fallacy.


Problem gambling can lead to multiple harms on a psychological, social, vocational and financial level. It often coexists with other behaviors that compromise wellbeing such as substance use, depression and suicidal thoughts; more research has unlocked a wide array of phenomena related to pathological gambling.

Gambling-related cognitive distortions have been associated with neural responses in the mesolimbic reward system. But these responses vary depending on their psychological context: for instance, activations rates increase upon financial gains than losses and left lateral prefrontal cortex activity increases upon outcomes seen as “surprises”, suggesting gamblers’ fallacies.

Mesolimbic dopamine, the key neuromediator of incentive motivation, was released more readily during gambling episodes by people in PG than by those in HC; this correlates with greater sensitivity to financial gains for PD. Furthermore, lesions to amygdala caused altered choice behavior when rats performed Iowa Gambling Task tasks.

Behavioral Patterns

Compulsive gambling, defined as continuing to gamble despite experiencing serious, adverse repercussions, is defined by persistently engaging in such behavior regardless of its adverse repercussions, such as loss of income, family relationships, jobs or legal troubles – even suicide can occur as a result. Compulsive gambling meets all criteria established by the American Psychiatric Association as being considered an impulse control disorder; signs include increasing preoccupation with gambling, restlessness or irritability when trying to stop, chasing losses or concealing gambling behavior.

Studies on psychological research demonstrate that people have an instinctual tendency to look for patterns in random data, often known as the “hot-hand” phenomenon. This search for patterns could explain some of the pleasure gamblers experience when their wins become consecutive.

Individuals who are mindful of their current emotional state and any influences that could cause bias are better equipped to make effective decisions, commonly known as motivated processing. Furthermore, those with higher emotion differentiation levels tend to be better at controlling affective influences and decision-making performance.


Gambling addiction is a mental health issue that impacts individuals from all backgrounds, often leading to devastating results in terms of finances, relationships and career – potentially including criminal acts. Therefore researchers are investigating why certain people continue gambling despite losing money – thus prompting the need for research on this subject.

Though gambling is an unpredictable event, many players believe they can create a system or strategy to increase their odds of success. This belief is known as “gambler’s fallacy” and stems from our brain’s natural tendency towards pattern recognition and sequential analysis. Unfortunately, no betting system can guarantee victory and any system cannot promise guaranteed wins.

Studies using neuropsychological and functional magnetic resonance imaging techniques have revealed that problem gamblers demonstrate impaired goal-directed control, particularly with regard to rewards expectancies violations. This could be attributable to disrupted dorsolateral prefrontal cortex functioning which has been shown to impact deliberative functions like risk taking and working memory.

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