Friends and family members of gamblers often ask us: Why do people gamble? They don’t understand how a person can continue to gamble, even if it’s hurting themselves and the lives of people around them. So why do people gamble?
From the question: Why do you gamble? You can gain a lot of information. There are many reasons people gamble. It often starts with the thrill of winning money. It’s exciting to know that one spin can change one’s life forever.
You can also read our translation of a study of why 1600 Swedes gamble. The diagram below summarizes why people gamble in Sweden:
Why do people gamble – How it starts
Two common reasons people start gambling are for entertainment or to socialize. Sitting a few people by the blackjack table frequently creates a feeling of us against the house, and for many, it’s an enjoyable feeling to be part of a group.
If you ask a gambler why she gambles, these are common answers you’ll get. They might be true initially, but for a problem gambler, or a compulsive gambler, it’s rarely about the money or excitement anymore. They might claim it is, but seldom true. Questions like: When you win, do you spend your winning on more gambling? Do you stop or continue until everything is gone? Can give more insights into why do people gamble. History is full of jackpot winners who relentlessly continued to gamble until they had spent every penny. So, what could the real reason be?
To better understand why people gamble, it’s essential to understand what gambling does to the brain. Gambling is rewarding in terms of adrenaline and dopamine kicks. In the article can you win, you can read more about how slot machines are designed to maximize dopamine in the brain.
When interviewing people seeking help for gambling problems, they often say they gamble to escape something. They gamble when they are bored, stressed, anxious, lonely, or get some time for themselves. Gambling has become a way to deal with challenging situations in life.
In How to help a gambling addict, we have changed the question Why do people gamble to What happens when you gamble? Even if we want to understand why people gamble, asking about what happens is more neutral. Gamblers get the question of why they do what they do all the time, and the chance they give a defensive, rather than a truthful, answer is high. Nobody likes to be criticized. Test the following questions:
What happens when you gamble? Does it create a moment of peace? A period when nothing else matters? Perhaps the answers can explain why it’s so hard to quit?
These questions are neutral. They don’t put any value of right or wrong into the answer. It increases the chances that you get a truthful answer.
If you’re a gambler, these questions might be beneficial for you. They will help you understand why you gamble; what gambling is doing for you. Because gambling is doing something for you, that’s the reason it’s so hard to stop gambling.
Why are some people more sensitive to gambling?
A lot of research has been done on the addiction gene, but so far, it can’t be proven that there is an addiction gene. However, in his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, Dr. Gabor Mate discusses how addiction can be transferred from parent to kid through multiple generations. Dr. Gabor Mate wrote about his first years growing up in Budapest and how the stress of his mother created anxiety in him as an infant.
The addiction gene might exist, or it might not. 80% of the Swedish population gamble every year, but only 2-3% have gambling problems (Swedish health authority). That indicates that some people are more sensitive to gambling. We believe that gambling affects us differently because we all experience various levels of pain in life. For a person who suffers from anxiety, depression, stress, boredom, loneliness, or feels that life is meaningless, gambling will most likely have a more substantial effect than a person who experiences less pain.
What does that mean? It means that if a person goes through a painful separation, loses their job, grief, or experience other pain. They are more sensitive to developing a gambling problem through escape gambling. If you’re a family member or friend, pay extra attention to how the person gambles during times like that. If you need some support, we can recommend the how to help a gambling addict guide.
Escalation of a gambling problem
As a gambler, we recommend you look at the Gambling Addiction Curve. It’s a tool that visualizes the connection between why you play and the consequences. It’s advantageous if you’re in it for the money.
- Developing mood swings or getting easily upset
- Problems sleeping
- Person isolates himself from friends and family
- Spend a lot of time gambling or hiding what they are doing
- Problems completing things on time. Stuff at work or being late for appointments.
- Ask about money and receive reminders of invoices.
A particular sign that few talk about is if the gambler changes how he talks about gambling: perhaps he spoke a lot about gambling in the past, but suddenly he stopped talking about it. (But he still gambles)
If you’re a gambler, one thing to look out for is if you think about gambling/betting even when you’re not gambling.
When you read stories about gambling problems, you can often see a pattern. Not everyone comes from a broken home, has been abused, or had addicted parents. Usually, the person had a good life before something happened. They might have gambled for years without showing any signs of a problem. But then something happens; an accident, long sick leave, a divorce, or the kids moving out, which creates a lot of pain. Suddenly, gambling becomes a way to escape the pain and rapidly, a gambling problem develops. Be extra attentive to the gambler in painful situations as a relative or friend.
Take action: What you can do today
As a relative or friend:
Here are a few things you can do to help a gambling addict.
- Focus on yourself. Make sure that you don’t sacrifice yourself to help the person. Then you might end up co-dependent.
- Join our free QG Community or find a support group near you. We’re here to support you.
- Take our free Non-violent communication course. It’ll aid you in your communication with the person with gambling problems. Reach out to the person to understand why do people gamble by asking him/her What happens when you gamble? Does it create a moment of peace? A period when nothing else matters? Perhaps the answers can explain why it’s so hard to quit.
- Help him/her to seek help. You’re both welcome to join our community, alternatively, find something that suits your needs.
As a gambler
Suppose you want to stop gambling. There are some things you can do to improve your success chances. The most common strategy is to run away from the problem. People try to stop cold turkey. For some, it works, but most people fail. Here is an analogy:
Think of you trying to run away, but the addiction has a GPS tracker on you. You can run, but as soon as you stop, the addiction is creeping up on you again. The only way to succeed is to run long enough so the battery in the tracker runs out. Some people succeed. Most don’t.
Instead of running, let’s face the problem head-on. Let’s challenge addiction and look for its cause. One helpful tool is the Happiness Test. It doesn’t tell you if you have a gambling problem. Instead, it helps you identify areas that cause you pain. In other words, what makes it so hard to stop gambling?
Here are a few more things you can do:
- Ask yourself: What happens when you gamble? Does it create a moment of peace? A period when nothing else matters? Perhaps the answers can explain why it’s so hard to quit.
- Find support in our online community or join a support group close to you.
- Work actively to become proactive, rather than only react when you feel an urge to gamble. Creating your change plan is a good start.
- Take a small step each day to become a happier person. Target the areas that cause you pain today, and you’ll see how the urge to gamble gradually disappears.
Gambling can be a fun activity, but understanding why do people gamble is important since that determines the risk of developing a gambling problem. If you’re trying to help someone with a gambling addiction. Instead of asking why people gamble, ask natural questions about what happens when they gamble. By asking natural questions, it’s more likely you get an honest answer. The same goes if you’re a gambler.
[i] (Kim 2017) Why do young adults gamble online? (2017) Hyoun S. Kim, Michael J. A. Wohl Psychopharmacology
[ii] (Ferrara 2018) Gambling disorder in adolescents: what do we know about this social problem and its consequences? Pietro Ferrara, Giulia Franceschini & Giovanni Corsello