The Psychology of Gambling

Two people discussing the psychology of gambling

Problems with gambling can happen to anyone from any walk of life. Gambling goes from a fun, harmless game to an unhealthy obsession that can have serious consequences. It doesn’t matter if you’re betting on sports, roulette, poker, scratch-off tickets, or slots–in a casino, at the track, or online. 

A gambling problem can:

  • harm relationships
  • interfere with work
  • lead to financial ruin

A gambling addict may do things they never thought they would do, like running up huge debts or even stealing to get money to gamble. These patterns are similar to drug addiction and can require treatment as well.

What is the Psychology Behind Gambling?

Gambling is a curious psychological phenomenon. Consequently, there has been extensive research on how psychological processes affect gambling behavior. These are 5 interesting gambling observations:

A good mood can lead to increased gambling.

A study found a positive relationship between things that cause a good mood ( such as the number of days of sunshine or the success of a particular sports team) and increased gambling. The reason given is that a positive mood leads to more risk-taking.

Gambler’s fallacy.

If a roulette player sees seven black numbers come up in a row, they will then put their money on red. This is a well-known psychological process that is called the gambler’s fallacy. It is the mistaken belief that if an event occurs repeatedly, a different event is about to occur. The reality is that the odds of any particular event happening are always the same.

Changing expectations in regard to winning.

In an interesting study, racetrack bettors were asked to estimate the odds that their preferred horse would win, both before and after betting on the horse.  After placing their bets, gamblers tended to believe that their horse had a better chance of winning after they made their bet. The heightened commitment caused them to be more optimistic.

The bandwagon effect.

We have all seen that when lottery jackpots reach record levels and get a lot of media attention, there is a craze for buying tickets. People don’t want to be left out of the process. At times like this, people who have never played the lottery before will “jump on the bandwagon” and buy some tickets.

Gambling systems and superstitions.

By its very definition, gambling is a random event. But many gamblers thoroughly believe that they can come up with a system to win at gambling. 

This includes: 

  • attempting to predict patterns in random numbers (there aren’t any), 
  • trying to pick “hot” slot machines or avoid “cold” ones (for example, continuing to play a machine because it’s “hot;” playing a machine that hasn’t paid off thinking it’s due to pay), 
  • performing ritual behavior to keep winning (tapping machines with a lucky charm; wearing certain clothes), or
  • the illusion of control–the gambler’s belief that they can exert skill over a game that is actually defined by chance.

The Gambling and Substance Use Connections


We know that gambling can be extremely addicting. And these psychological processes often work to increase the addiction. Neuroscience (study of the brain and nervous system) research has discovered that gambling addiction has many of the same neural processes as drug addiction. 

Near-misses and personal choices cause gamblers to play more than they want to and make larger bets. After a while, the distorted expectations of winning pushes “loss chasing,” when gamblers continue to play to make up for their losses. 

Loss chasing is one of the hallmarks of problem gambling and is actually similar to substance use disorder (SUD). Problem gamblers also experience cravings and symptoms of withdrawal when the opportunity to gamble is denied.


Along with an array of psychological factors, gambling addiction has biological elements. The brain chemical dopamine plays an important role in substance use disorders and may be regulated abnormally in problem gambling. 

Advances in brain imaging technology are helping researchers understand how gambling games are so effective in keeping people gambling. Research has shown a dependable pattern of brain activity when people receive monetary wins. A region called the striatum, near the center of the brain is a critical part of a reward circuit that also responds to natural reinforcement like food and sex. It also responds to drugs of abuse like cocaine.

The Dual Diagnosis Complication

Individuals who have a gambling addiction earlier in life also have a tendency to have problems with substance abuse or impulsivity disorders like ADHD and antisocial personality disorder. Women who develop gambling disorders are more likely than men to also have depression, bipolar, and anxiety disorders.

Research from a large study in the U.S. showed that there are high rates of co-occurring SUD and gambling disorders with alcohol addiction being the most common. More than 73% of people with a gambling addiction also had an alcohol use disorder. Having a co-occurring mental disorder and a SUD is called a dual diagnosis and needs special treatment protocol.

Gambling Addiction in 4 Steps

The Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery has identified the four phases in gambling addiction which are:

1. The Winning Phase

The winning phase frequently starts with a big win, which leads to excitement and a positive view of gambling. Problem gamblers believe that they have a special skill at gambling and winning will continue. They then begin to spend greater amounts of money and time gambling.

2. Losing Phase

Problem gamblers become more and more absorbed in gambling. They start to gamble alone, miss work, borrow money, lie to family and friends, and miss paying their debts. They may also begin to chase their losses.

3. Desperation Phase

They begin to lose all control over their gambling. They may feel shame and guilt but they can’t stop. They may cheat or steal to finance their habit. When the consequences of compulsive gambling catch them, they might lose their jobs, get divorced, or get arrested.

4. Hopeless Phase

In the hopeless phase, gamblers hit “rock bottom.” They don’t believe that help is possible or that anyone cares. They no longer care whether they live or die. At this time they may be abusing drugs or alcohol to numb the pain. And sadly, many problem gamblers consider or attempt suicide.

Can Gambling Addiction Be Treated?

Yes, it can. And at Lifetime Recovery we have the experience and treatment interventions specifically for gambling addiction and dual diagnosis situations. Lifetime Recovery also has several levels of care so you can enter treatment at the level you need and leave treatment when you are ready. 

We also have professional addiction specialists and counselors to guide you through the therapy you will need to dig deep into your issues and any underlying causes for your addiction. Don’t wait to become involved in your life again. Contact us now. 

Treating mental health and trauma

Our behavioral health and substance abuse treatment experts also treat co-occurring disorders/dual diagnoses (including trauma), and we are one of the few alcohol and drug rehab centers offering gambling addiction treatment.