The Psychology of Gambling Addiction

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Yes, gambling addiction is a “real” addiction. It is an impulse-control disorder that can destroy lives as completely as alcoholism or an opioid habit. Some new technology, however, is providing some insights that may help us fight it.

An astounding 2.5 million American adults suffer from compulsive gambling, another 3 million are considered problem gamblers, and around 15 million adults are under the risk of becoming problem gamblers. According to the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcoholism and Related Conditions, men are about three times as likely to become pathological gamblers compared with women during their lives (in the U.S.). Men are also about twice as likely to develop "subclinical" pathological gambling, a less severe form of the problem, which is estimated at about 7 percent for men and 3 percent for women.

Through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), scientists have learned that addicts have altered activity in brain regions related to risk and reward. This makes them more likely to prefer risky choices.

Now a new study out of Kyoto University in Japan shows that gambling addicts possess a reduced capacity to assess and adapt to high risk situations.

"We noticed that gambling addicts also have higher levels of mood and anxiety disorders," says lead author Hidehiko Takahashi. "Hence pleasure may not be the main goal, but rather an inability to properly recognize risk and adapt accordingly."

All of us make decisions based upon what we perceive as the likelihood of success factored against the level of tolerable risk. At that point we, we make adjustments based on prevailing circumstances.

"For example, if you are losing in the first half of a soccer match, you will likely prefer a strong defense while pushing your attackers forward," continues Takahashi, "However, if you are losing at the end of the second half, you may choose to forgo defense in favor of an all-out attack, because you would lose otherwise."

Addicts, however, exhibit a defect in risk assessment and adaptation.  In their study, Takahashi and his colleagues learned how addicts will go with a risky strategy even if that choice is sub-optimal.

"We observed diminished activity in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain involved in cognitive flexibility," concludes Takahashi. "This indicates that these subjects lack an ability to adapt their behavior to the risk level of the situation."

The research was published in Translational Psychiatry.