In America and many other countries, the statistics on problem gambling seem harrowing. The National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) figures that between 2% and 3% of all Americans meet NCPG criteria for problem gambling, a number in the area of 6.5 million people. The NCPG defines “problem gambling” as that behavior which “causes disruption in any major area of life: psychological, physical, social or vocational.”
And if you think that number sounds high, the National Institute of Health (NIH) sets that 3% (or 6.5 million) as the low end of the spectrum, figuring as much as 5% (or just under 11 million) of the U.S population might be considered problem gamblers.
Statistics on problem gambling
Meanwhile, agencies like the above-mentioned seemingly continuously trots out numbers such as these released in mid-2015:
• Some 15% of Americans participate in some form of gambling (from lottery tickets to casino gambling or sports betting) at least once per week. About 80% do so at least once a year.
• Frequent gambling is twice as common among U.S. males (28%) than among females (13%), per a University of Buffalo study undertaken in 2012..
• Approximately 76% of problem gamblers have or develop a major depressive disorder in tandem with NCPG.
• Problem drinkers are 23 times more likely to also have gambling problems than the average citizen.
• Gambling by the under-aged is increasing, as youth develop gambling problems at a rate up to threefold their adult counterparts.
• Approximately 6% of American college students have gambling problems.
Naturally, problem gambling is comparable to other addictions in its individual personal and greater societal effects. According to NCPG statistics, costs in the US alone due to problem-gambling behaviors run a whopping $17 billion annually (or over $53 per citizen).
While a good deal of this figure is connected with bankruptcy- and personal debt-related issues, the most important part of the story is much darker: According to a 2010 study undertaken at Georgia State University, right around 50% of problem gamblers commit crimes. Informal estimates reckon that 80% to 90% of Gamblers Anonymous members committed crimes or illegal activities in order to fund their habit.
What causes gambling addiction?
The NCPG’s official stance is that the complex question regarding the root causes of gambling addiction is answered with a combination of nature- and nurture-based reasons: “[An individual’s inability to control the gambling] may be due in part to a person’s genetic tendency to develop addiction, their ability to cope with normal life stress and even their social upbringing and moral attitudes…”
Several studies have demonstrated a correlation between certain socioeconomic and/or geographic factors on gambling problems. NIH statistics show that those living within 10 miles of a casino increases the risk of developing a gambling problem by a factor of two. Additionally, NIH researchers found that those living in disadvantaged areas were 90% more likely to develop such problems.
However, as the NCPG points out, such factors are not the sole cause of problem gambling; the Council’s official material concludes that the location of gambling devices “does not … create the problem any more than a liquor store would create an alcoholic.
Operant conditioning and the psychology of problem gambling
So unlike alcohol or drug addiction, problem gambling must be purely psychological, right? Not quite: Some physical component of gambling addiction must exist, because drugs can today be prescribed to pathological and/or addicted gamblers, with government-sponsored clinical trials of new cures ongoing.
In terms of that (mostly) inexplicable psychological side of problem gambling, though, one must understand a little something about operant conditioning. Operant conditioning was first theorized and tested by B.F. Skinner in the 1930s and was based on principles put forth by psychologist Edward Thorndike in the early 20th century as well as 19th-century scientific philosopher Ernst Mach.
Essentially, all the pleasure derived from (as well as addiction to) gambling – particularly those games based entirely on chance such as craps, roulette and slot machines – is derived from the success of operant conditioning in humans. If one wishes to induce repeated behavior, the reward given for the “correct” behavior should be distributed randomly – somewhat counterintuitive to most, who might suspect that continual reward for the desired behavior is best.
This is operant conditioning and its relation to gambling is certainly obvious: The reward is the rush of dopamine flooding your neurons after a win; the desired behavior is going another round on the game – a combination that’s tough to beat. As Skinner himself once said, “The fascinating thing about random rewards is that they fly in the face of our innate perception of fairness. Perhaps it is exactly because the situation is not fair, though, that we are entranced by the possibility of “winning big” if we just keep at it.”
Signs of problem gambling
You’ve probably heard one list or another enumerating the “Signs of Problem Gambling,” and you’re well familiar with them by now. Questions that must be asked to determine the possibility of a gambling problem may include:
• Has gambling become distraction to the exclusion of everything at work or home?
• Do you no longer budget your playing money?
• Do you spend most of your playing time chasing losses?
• Have others commented on the amount of time you spend gambling?
• Have you gambling money that had been earmarked for other uses?
But we’d argue that it’s even simpler than answering a list of question. In order to determine whether one has a gambling problem or not, one need only ask oneself a single simple question; if the answer is “no”, a gambling problem is most probably real. That question is this:
• Is it still fun?