Gambling involves risking something of value on an event whose outcome is determined at least in part by chance. It can be as simple as buying a lottery ticket or putting a bet on the horses, sports or a game of cards and it can be as complex as playing poker or placing a bet on online games like blackjack, roulette and bingo. In the past people have gambled for money, goods or services and today gambling is much more accessible to many more people than ever before with the proliferation of gambling products that can be accessed via computer and the internet.
For some people, gambling becomes problematic and can lead to financial, social or emotional harm. Problem gambling is often described as compulsive, pathological or addictive behaviour. It is a disorder that can affect anyone and has been linked to other mental health issues such as depression, substance abuse and anxiety. It can also result in problems at work, in family and in friendships. It’s important to recognise the symptoms of gambling problems and seek help when you need it.
The causes of gambling problems can be complex and vary depending on the person. However, in most cases, it is because of a combination of factors such as a family history of problem gambling, underlying psychiatric disorders and a negative or risk-taking personality. For some people, the lure of gambling is enticing and they may start to bet on anything from TV shows to online slots with the hope of winning big. But the chances of winning are slim and it’s vital to be aware of the risks involved.
A key reason why people struggle to control their gambling is because the activity triggers a reward centre in the brain that releases dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter that makes us excited. This reward centre is located in the prefrontal cortex, which plays a central role in attention and planning.
Despite the high levels of dopamine released by gambling, it is still possible to stop and even reverse problematic gambling patterns. Often, the root cause is an underlying psychological issue and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be used to help. CBT examines a person’s beliefs around gambling and how these influence their behaviour. It looks at faulty thinking such as believing you are more likely to win, that certain rituals will bring luck and that you can earn back losses through gambling.
Despite the widespread availability of gambling, there is a lack of clarity on how to measure its impact. Research to date has relied on a combination of measures such as problem gambling diagnostic criteria and behavioural symptoms. While these are useful, they do not capture the full breadth of harm experienced by people who gamble and their affected others. To address this, this paper proposes a functional definition of gambling related harm as well as a conceptual framework and taxonomy to facilitate further work in this area.