The good, the bad and the gamble

Gambling is often looked at as a two-sided coin, but which side is shinier?

Gambling is an emotive topic and one that creates conflicting views. Those who gamble rarely think there’s anything wrong with it and scoff at those who claim it’s the root of all evil, while those who don’t gamble think it’s a problem (or claim it’s a problem waiting to happen), and ultimately blame gambling for many of society’s ills. Nevertheless, people continue to gamble, and an insight into human psychology can provide several reasons for the attraction.

One of the most powerful explanations for gambling behaviour is that we’ve simply learned to do it from our role models. Children find out from an early age what constitutes good and bad behaviour and, according to ‘social learning theory’, we learn to distinguish good and bad from those we respect, like and are close to us (i.e. family and friends). If a child sees a parent playing cards for money, or betting on the horses, it’s seen as acceptable behaviour and consequently that child will be more likely to indulge in that behaviour as they grow older.

This is certainly something to consider if you have children that you don’t want to follow in your footsteps! How many poker players do you know who have learned the game from a family member at an early age? Likewise, if we see those who we admire (sportsmen, film and TV stars) indulging in gambling behaviours, then we’re more likely to want to emulate them.

The high life

Another key factor in why people gamble is because it brings escapism from the daily grind by creating highs and lows that might not otherwise come your way. The perception of gamblers – think of Sammy Farha on High Stakes Poker – is that they’re having a great time and making a lot of money.

The life that we see appears more glamorous than our own, and the larger the gap between the two types of lifestyle (i.e. ours and theirs), the more likely we are to gamble to try to be like them.

Then there are those who gamble because they enjoy the risks that are involved, and they tend to get a ‘buzz’ from such risky behaviour. This ‘buzz’ is normally associated with a change of physiology, such as an increase in pulse rate and the release of chemicals into the body, such as adrenaline and dopamine (although the link between risk-taking and chemical release is not always clear cut).

There is evidence that some of the physiological changes associated with gambling, especially in those who are classified as ‘addicted’, are very similar to the changes that are found in those who are drug addicts or alcoholics. Similarly, there’s a growing number of researchers who claim that overall there is very little difference between those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol and those who are addicted to gambling.

Fortunately, for most of us gambling is just a way to socialise, have a bit of fun and let our hair down as an antidote to work; although if we are seen to spend a bit too much time indulging in what we consider to be just a hobby, those nearest to us are prone to worry that we are becoming addicted.

Random factors

Unfortunately, no one has really discovered why some people who are involved in certain behaviours (such as gambling, drinking or drug- taking) become addicted whereas others don’t. If it was due to mere exposure to certain stimuli, then we would expect, for example, to see a higher rate of addiction to gambling in workers within the industry, such as those who work in casinos and betting shops, but this tends not to be the case.

There are certainly no hard and fast rules to tell when someone has a gambling problem, but there are some signs you can look out for. These include: gambling for higher and higher stakes in order to provide the ‘buzz’ once achieved at much lower levels; feeling restless and irritable when it’s not possible to gamble, sometimes accompanied by physical symptoms such as nausea, headaches and sweats; borrowing (or stealing) from family and friends in order to gamble or to pay off gambling debts; lying about the extent to which one gambles, especially to loved ones; putting close relationships at risk by preferring to gamble as opposed to spending quality time with people; and being preoccupied with gambling in thought and conversation.

While this list is by no means exhaustive, generally speaking, any behaviour that prevents a person from living a reasonably ‘normal’ life can be classed as a problem, and is likely to indicate some level of addiction.

Like most things moderation is the key, but if you feel that you or someone you know needs help with a gambling compulsion, a good place to start would be either or

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