What causes gambling addiction?

Some individuals enjoy gambling as light-hearted fun, while for others it evolves into a gambling addiction. It's interesting to question what leads to this divergence. Is it merely a question of personality, or are there more subtle factors at play? Here we delve into the factors advertising the progression of gambling into an addiction, shedding light on why some are more vulnerable than others.

Gamblers Classification and Risk Assessment 

It's intriguing how some people can perceive gambling as an innocent pastime, while others find themselves grappling with a serious addiction. This disparity can be attributed to how individuals approach and experience gambling. Renowned psychologist, Robert L. Custer, M.D., who spearheaded the treatment methodologies for pathological gambling, categorized gamblers into six types:

  • Professional gamblers
  • Antisocial or personality gamblers
  • Casual social gamblers
  • Serious social gamblers
  • Relief and escape gamblers
  • Compulsive gamblers

It's essential to note that since Custer’s theories came out in the 1980s, problem gambling is now recognized as a form of addiction rather than just compulsive behavior. Nonetheless, Custer’s typology continues to be exceptionally relevant in modern times.

Each category engages in gambling for distinct reasons, which can significantly influence their susceptibility to developing a gambling addiction.

Professional gamblers 

For this category, gambling is not simply recreational; it is their chosen profession and primary income source. They approach gambling methodically, applying planned strategies. These gamblers infrequently develop an addiction, since they don't gamble for leisure or pleasure.

Antisocial/personality gamblers 

Similarly, antisocial or personality gamblers also view gambling as a revenue stream. This group, however, often resorts to illicit tactics to gain an upper hand. They rarely exhibit gambling addiction, though they may feign addiction if apprehended for their unlawful activities.

Casual social gamblers 

This category perceives gambling as a social activity or a hobby. Generally, when indulging in gambling with friends, they apply it as a means to relax, socialise, or distract themselves from daily routines. Their leisure, work, and social life remain mostly unaffected by this pastime.

Serious social gamblers 

Although akin to casual social gamblers, serious social gamblers dedicate more time to gambling, placing it high on their list for entertainment. They manage to maintain control over their gambling tendencies while not allowing it to overshadow their family, work, and social commitments.

Relief and escape gamblers 

As the name suggests, these gamblers use betting as an avenue to escape negative emotions or life's predicaments, such as loneliness, depression, or monotony. The lack of healthier coping mechanisms can lead to an escalation in their gambling habits, making them susceptible to addiction.

Compulsive gamblers 

Compulsive or problem gamblers are the ones who have lost control of their gambling habits. They hold gambling as a primary focus in their lives. The addiction severely impacts their lives, causing massive negative effects.

The remainder of the article will concentrate on compulsive gamblers, exploring what fuels their addiction.

Does Money Dictate Gambling Addiction? 

Gambling addiction is not merely the product of an individual's greed for financial gain. Early research into the area predominantly focused on the money-oriented perspective; however, subsequent studies have clarified that it isn't the primary trigger. Holding onto the misconception that those dealing with this addiction are merely attempting to amass an enormous fortune or lead a luxurious lifestyle can be damaging and misguided.

While money indeed plays a pivotal role in the lives of those grappling with gambling addiction, it doesn't quite explain the root cause of their compulsive behaviour. Two main driving factors can be categorized as biological and psychological, which we'll delve into in the following sections.

The financial cycle of gamblers 

To fully comprehend how gambling impacts financial stability, we need to examine the financial cycle of an individual gripped by gambling problems as suggested by Dr. Henry Lesieur. If any of these traits resonate with you, be sure to refer to our article on recognising the symptoms of problem gambling.

As the term suggests, the “financial cycle” is cyclical, often mirroring a repeating negative spiral. Every cycle ends up augmenting the individual's crisis, pushing them further into despair, until rock bottom is inevitably reached. It's possible to break free from this vicious cycle, preferably by seeking professional help for the addiction. However, failing to address the issue promptly can lead to severe consequences, from bankruptcy to fatality.

Excess finances: a gateway to gambling

Initially, the individual has ample funds to fuel their gambling activities. Bets are often highest at this stage. This becomes particularly hazardous for those who've grown tolerant towards smaller stakes, no longer finding them thrilling. Those grappling with severe gambling addiction can easily expend their monthly discretionary income within days, or even hours, seeking that elusive “buzz”.

Shrinking finances: a barrier to gambling 

Eventually, the individual starts to experience a shortage of funds, although not completely insolvent yet. Feelings of remorse, anxiety, and sadness are prevalent during this phase. Here, the notion of “recouping losses” emerges – the desperate urge to recover lost money. However, attempts to mitigate losses often backfire, resulting in further financial drain.

Absence of finances: a path to debt and existential crisis 

This phase kicks in when the gambler exhausts all resources. Emotions of desperation, and at times depression, tend to overwhelming. Depending on the intensity of their addiction and their resilience, they may temporarily cease gambling. However, this proves to be an uphill battle, especially for chronic gamblers who even experience withdrawal symptoms likened to those endured by substance abusers.

The cycle starts anew as the individual procures additional funds. These funds may stem from multiple sources, ranging from the least detrimental (salaries) to more distressing ones (borrowing from friends and family, banks, loan sharks, or even committing unlawful activities).

What Triggers Gambling Addictions? 

Understanding addictions, especially those like gambling, requires comprehensive assessment of a multitude of intertwined factors. Chronic conditions like these are characterized by a convoluted web of triggers that provoke compulsive behavior. The factors contributing to this behavior can be categorized into biological, psychological, social and spiritual. This structure is often referred to as the Bio-Psycho-Social-Spiritual Model of Addiction.

In the context of gambling addiction, one cannot overlook the significant role of biological and psychological factors. It has been scientifically established that these elements account for most instances of compulsive gambling. In shedding light on these underlying factors, we aim to dismantle myths and encourage more informed discussions around this often misunderstood issue.

Biological Component

Defining addiction as a “chronic disease of the brain” does not fully reveal its intricate nature, nor does it suggest that just because an addict's brain is “sick”, they have no control over their addiction. While this portrayal is not entirely accurate, it does provide insight into several crucial aspects of addiction.

First, it has been demonstrated that approximately 50% of addictions are attributed to biological factors. Second, people aren’t addicted to substances or activities per se. Instead, they become hooked on the chemicals their brains release in response to these stimuli. Lastly, it is found that people with naturally healthy brains are more susceptible to addictive behaviors, since our brains are inherently programmed to make us want to repeat enjoyable activities – these are known as “motivated behaviors”.

However, the brain can adapt to new environmental elements and begin to perceive these as equally significant to basic survival instincts, leading to addictive behaviors. As addiction escalates, it takes its toll on the brain and alters its structure permanently. There are three significant areas of the brain and three brain chemicals involved in this process.

Three regions of the brain:

  • Cerebral Cortex
  • Amygdala
  • Hypothalamus

Three substances in the brain:

  • Serotonin
  • Dopamine
  • Norepinephrine

Cerebral Cortex 

Alterations in the cerebral cortex affect one's decision-making abilities, leading to impulsive and obsessive behavior. This is why an addict may struggle with sensible decision making and may instead act impulsively and in an unhealthy manner.


The amygdala, associated with memories and emotions, forms associations based on past experiences allowing the brain to anticipate future situations. These associations become habits, and when the habitual action is broken, withdrawal symptoms ensue. This explains why gamblers often relapse due to the routines associated with their addiction.


Gamblers often employ gambling as an escape mechanism for stressful situations, which is linked to the hypothalamus' stress management function. Addiction, however, reduces the ability to effectively manage stress, creating a vicious cycle of stress and gambling. If gambling is abruptly ceased, withdrawal symptoms increase stress levels further.


Serotonin, often referred to as the “happy chemical”, impacts emotions and motivation. Abnormal serotonin levels, as seen in problem gamblers, can disturb motivated behaviors and induce mood swings. It has also been cited in the tendency of gamblers to “chase losses”, due to desensitization to negative feelings tied to financial losses.


Dopamine, contrary to popular belief, isn't a “happy chemical” but rather governs our brain's reward systems. When “desirable” actions are performed, dopamine is released, creating a sense of euphoria, which is why people seek to repeat those behaviors. Elevated levels of dopamine are observed in gamblers during gambling activities. It is also observed that people with Parkinson’s disease, caused by irregular dopamine regulation, are more prone to addiction.

Norepinephrine (Noradrenaline) 

Norepinephrine prepares the body for action, boosts alertness, and is involved in memory recall. This chemical has been linked to gamblers' engrossed state during betting sessions. It has also been associated with reward sensitization, attention focus, thrill-seeking behavior, and relapse incidents.

Psychological Triggers 

A psychological analysis of gambling addiction draws from the Bio-Psycho-Social-Spiritual Model of Addiction, which clarifies the myriad interdependent elements that drive addiction. The psychological aspects of this compulsion are extensive and convoluted.

Despite failed attempts at isolating a single explanation of gambling addiction psychology, the most promising theory is the integrated model suggested by addiction experts Blaszczynski and Nower. This model combines insights from multiple psychological theories (including cognitive, learning, addiction, personality, and psychoanalytic theories) to form a comprehensive understanding of gambling addiction.

According to Blazczynski and Nower, we can categorize problem gamblers into three separate groups depending on the potential underlying causes of their addiction:

  • Emotionally vulnerable gamblers
  • Behaviorally conditioned gamblers
  • Biologically inclined gamblers

All problem gamblers may exhibit similarities in manifestation, but the genesis of such behaviors varies significantly. However, among all gamblers, some factors are shared, including environmental influences, delight experienced when playing, and cognitive abnormalities (illusions).

Emotionally Vulnerable Gamblers

Emotionally vulnerable gamblers typically gamble as an emotional release or an escape route from life's prevalent sorrows. These people often exhibit an emotional imbalance, poor coping mechanisms, social isolation, and low self-esteem. The most effective illness management approach for this group involves emotional healing therapy and the development of healthier coping strategies.

On a side note, QuitGamble.com has designed an insightful happiness test that relates emotions to gambling addiction. The test will ask several questions about an individual’s life, identifying the happiness quotient, stress levels, and the degree of life's pain. Subsequently, it calculates one’s gambling addiction risk.

Behaviorally Conditioned Gamblers 

This category comprises gamblers who are deeply engrossed in their gambling patterns and are highly reactive to environmental triggers. Rehabilitation generally depends on discussions and therapy with certified professionals who can help disrupt these ingrained behavioral patterns.

Biologically-Based Gamblers 

Some players are victims of their biological makeup. Genomic and neurochemical factors stimulate a constant desire for excitement and impulsive actions. Such individuals can benefit significantly from a combination of medication and therapy to gain better control over their actions and limit subordination to their biological impulses.

Game Design Fuels Gambling Addiction

The main goal for both online and offline casinos is to retain players for as long as possible, encouraging them to keep betting and spending their money. This objective is often referred to as “heightening gambling productivity.”

Traditional casinos, with players physically there, do have an added edge by creating immersive environments through staff interactions, architecture, and decor. But, online casinos aren't left behind; they employ clever tactics to retain players too.

A number of hugely popular games and apps use elements borrowed from online gambling. Take, for instance, the well-known Candy Crush game that has mechanics derived from gambling. You'll also find some elements of a slot machine in platforms like Instagram and Facebook. In terms of matching and swiping, Tinder isn't too far off!

Let's dissect the techniques used by game designers to capture players’ attention and perhaps, their wallets.


Tokenization involves the conversion of currency into another form it symbolizes, such as poker chips. This technique, found in most casinos, creates a mental disconnect making it easier for players to bet without fully grasping the monetary value involved.


Casino games are designed to be competitive and engaging, borrowing elements from video games. Features such as leaderboards encourage players to compete and strive for the top spot. Other methods include offering skill-based games that provide a sense of achievement.

Diverse Game Opportunities 

The idea here is simple. Offering different types of games on the same platform eliminates the need for a player to switch sites. The ease of accessibility makes it convenient, ensuring continuous engagement.

Reward Uncertainty 

Also known as “variable intermittent ratio uncertainty,” this technique leverages gamblers' reactions to uncertainty, creating a heightened sense of suspense for outcomes. The gambling industry further motivates play via frequent near misses and small wins, making people feel they are walking on the edge of a big win.

Hidden Losses 

Losses disguised as wins can be most commonly seen in slot machines with a high number of winnings combinations. The frequent ‘wins' motivate the player to bet more, overlooking the fact that most ‘wins' are less than the actual bet placed.

Audio-Visual Stimulation 

Flashing lights and crisp sound effects serve not just to catch your attention, but to hold it. Designers often pay great care to balance the audio-visual experience; loud enough to enfolding but not distracting, bright enough to be visually appealing but not hindering.

Zone-Inducing Factors

“The Zone” or “the gambler’s high” is when a player becomes deeply engrossed in the game, frequently losing track of time. Features that enhance this “zone” include sound, visuals, and a speed of play catered to players' preferences. A common feature that can be quite risky due to its ability to extend the time and money spent unknowingly is the “auto-play” mode.


Gambling addiction is not as straightforward as it seems, being an intricate blend of biological and mentally-driven factors. If there's a concern that you or someone you know are on the brink of this addiction, we suggest reading our detailed article on recognizing and diagnosing problem gambling. For those already wrestling with gambling compulsions, recommend our article discussing successful strategies to overcome problem gambling.

Gambling Addiction Psychological Factors

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