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What Is Pathological Gambling?

When Betting Becomes an Addiction

By

Updated April 09, 2014

What Is Pathological Gambling?

The lure of easy cash hooks people into pathological gambling

Photo © Lisa Kong

Gambling addictions, also known as pathological gambling, compulsive gambling or problem gambling, are maladaptive patterns of gambling behavior that the individual persists with, despite negative consequences. This is consistent with behavior patterns observed in other addictions.

Pathological gambling is currently the only behavioral addiction included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), and is classified as an "Impulse Control Disorder," where the “essential feature is the failure to resist an impulse, drive or temptation to perform an act that is harmful to the person or to others” (p. 609, DSM-IV, American Psychiatric Association, 1994). It is proposed that pathological gambling will be renamed Gambling Disorder, and moved to a new category, Addiction and Related Disorders, for the next edition, DSM-V. As problem gambling has been increasingly recognized, treatment of problem gambling has fallen within the realm of addiction services.

Not all excessive gamblers are pathological, compulsive or problem gamblers. There are several different types of gambler. Pathological gambling is characterized by:

  • Preoccupation with gambling
  • Difficulty controlling gambling behavior, and unsuccessful efforts to stop
  • Negative consequences, such as family and job disruption, and lying about the extent of involvement with gambling
  • Financial problems due to gambling, gambling with increasing amounts of money to achieve desired excitement and stealing money to fund gambling.
  • Chasing losses

    Money is central to the experience of gambling. Gambling addicts, as with other people, attach many different positive attributes to money, such as power, comfort, security and freedom. Unlike other people, they fail to recognize that gambling puts them at risk of losing all of these attributes and that gambling is a random process, where the odds are stacked against them, so they are more likely to lose than to win. Furthermore, when they do win, people with gambling addictions tend to gamble away their winnings quickly.

    Gambling Behaviors

    There are many different gambling behaviors, which can be engaged in either alone or in social settings. Some examples of gambling behaviors are:

  • Card games, such as poker
  • Betting on games of skill
  • Sports betting
  • Bingo
  • Lotteries
  • Slot machines, VLTs
  • Casinos
  • Scratchcards, break open or pull tab tickets
  • Raffles

    Cognitive Distortions

    Gambling is an ineffective and unreliable way of acquiring money. For someone to become addicted to gambling, their cognitions or thought processes must become distorted to the point where this central truth eludes them.

    Ten Types of Cognitive Distortion

    Many problem gamblers’ thoughts are distorted in the following ways:

    Attribution –- Problem gamblers may believe their winnings occur as a result of their efforts and not randomly.

    Magical thinking –- Problem gamblers may believe that thinking or hoping in a certain way will bring about a win or that random outcomes can be predicted. They may also believe they are special in some way and that their specialness will be rewarded with a win.

    Superstitions –- Problem gamblers may believe that lucky charms, certain articles of clothing, ways of sitting, etc., may cause a win or a loss.

    Systems –- Problem gamblers may believe that by learning or figuring out a certain system (a pattern of betting in a particular way), the house advantage can be overcome. Although professional gamblers were more able to predict payouts with earlier technologies, which relied on more predictable patterns of payouts, this required many hours of careful observation, and the machine always kept more than it paid out. The increased computerization of gambling machinery has ensured that wins are now truly random, so it is impossible to predict a payout, and, of course, it is still heavily stacked in favor of the “house.”

    Selective recall -– Problem gamblers tend to remember their wins and forget or gloss over their losses.

    Personification of a gambling device –- Problem gamblers sometimes attribute human characteristics to inanimate objects, which are part of the gambling process, thinking that a particular machine is punishing, rewarding or taunting them.

    Near miss beliefs –- Problem gamblers reduce the number of losing experiences in their minds by thinking they “almost” won. This justifies further attempts to win. Near misses can be as stimulating, or even more stimulating, than actual wins.

    Chasing losses –- Problem gamblers believe that they have not really lost money to gambling, but that it can be “won back” by further gambling.

    Many of these thought distortions lead to highly ritualized patterns of behavior, which are characteristic of addictions.

    The Controversy of Gambling Addiction

    Like other behavioral addictions, gambling addiction is a controversial idea. Many experts balk at the idea that gambling can constitute an addiction, believing that there has to be a psychoactive substance that produces symptoms, such as physical tolerance and withdrawal, for an activity to be a true addiction.

    Gambling, however, is by far the best represented behavioral addiction in research literature and treatment services; therefore, pathological gambling has the most credibility among the behavioral addictions.

    This is partly due to financial input from the gambling industry, whose contribution is tiny compared to the massive profits they make but greatly exceeds funding for research or treatment of any other behavioral addiction. Despite the fact that this funding has greatly increased public awareness of gambling problems and treatment services, the potential conflict of interest when funding comes from a source that makes profit from gambling addiction is obvious.

    Sources:

    American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th Ed.) Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.

    American Psychiatric Association. DSM-V Proposed Revisions. Gambling Disorder. Retrieved July 12, 2011.

    Davis Consulting for The British Columbia Problem Gambling Program. "Problem Gambling Training Manual: Level 1" Vancouver, BC. 2001.

    Orford, J. “Excessive Appetites: A Psychological View of Addictions.” (Second Edition). Chichester: Wiley. 2001.

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