The Psychology of Casino Games: Why Gambling is Fun, and Why It Sometimes Spins Out of Control

16 Apr 2021

The Psychology of Casino Games: Why Gambling is Fun, and Why It Sometimes Spins Out of Control

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No one denies that playing casino games is thrilling — otherwise, how else would you explain the billions of dollars that the gaming industry rakes in every year? But have you ever stopped to wonder why these games are so exciting? Or why some people can get addicted to the rush, while others can happily take their winnings and go home whenever they feel like it? These questions are more than mere curiosities — they’ve been the subject of serious study for years now. However, with the rise of mobile gaming and online casinos, much of what we thought we knew about the psychology of gambling is being thrown into question, and we’re learning a whole lot more about what makes people tick when they sit down to wager their money.

The Difference Between Online and Brick-and-Mortar Casinos

Until recently, almost all of the academic research performed on the psychology of gambling was focused on brick-and-mortar casinos — which makes sense, because until recently that was the only place you could gamble (legally, anyway).[1] The rise of the internet has changed all that. Nowadays, gamblers can play anywhere they like — at home, on the road, or even while waiting for their favorite machine to open up at their normal casino. How does taking the games out of the real-world casino affect their impact on players, however? Does removing them from their sensory-rich environments deprive them of their hypnotic powers — or does it make them stronger? The answer, as it turns out, is a little bit of both.

The Psychological Advantages of Playing Online

There are several reasons why a gambler would prefer to play on the internet rather than at their local casino. Some of these are quite obvious, while others may surprise you. The most obvious reason is the convenience that online casinos offer. You don’t have to travel to a potentially far-off location to gamble, so you can play anytime the mood strikes — and your game choices are nearly unlimited. No longer will you be constrained by the offerings at your local brick-and-mortar casino. This convenience also brings gamblers greater value for their money. They save on transportation and food costs, they have no need to tip dealers, and since online casinos have lower overhead than their brick-and-mortar counterparts, they can usually afford to offer players better deals.[2] According to noted gambling expert Dr. Mark Griffiths, however, there’s another big reason why people prefer to play online: anonymity.[3] When you’re interacting with your phone or tablet from the privacy of your own home, you don’t have to worry about disapproving glances from other patrons. There’s also less reason to worry about the shame of losing; after all, no one will know it except you (and possibly your spouse).[4] This flies in the face of traditional wisdom, which states that most people will prefer to gamble at the casino due to the social interactions offered therein — but as we’ll soon see, it doesn’t quite disprove it.

A Few Big Reasons Why Traditional Casinos Shouldn’t Be Too Concerned Just Yet

There are still a few things that a brick-and-mortar casino can provide that can’t be found on your mobile device, however. Ironically, given that casinos are designed to take your money via games that are fixed in their favor, the biggest advantage they currently have over their online counterparts is trust. Despite their best efforts — creating sophisticated random number generators, using top-notch cybersecurity, even getting certified by independent gaming commissions — people still don’t trust online casinos not to rig the games against them.[5] Again, this is ironic, as the games are inherently rigged against them. Indeed, that principle is the bedrock on which the industry is founded. Besides the integrity of the games, people also miss the ability to mingle with other gamblers. After all, while it’s embarrassing to be around other people when you lose, having others around when you win can be intoxicating.[6] Gamblers also find the realism to be lacking. Seeing digits change on your screen after a big win can’t compete with the thrill of watching a bin fill up with coins or the dealer push a huge pile of chips your way. As we’ll soon see, though, that may be a good thing.

Which is More Dangerous — Online or Brick-and-Mortar Gambling?

It’s no secret that all the flashing lights and loud noises in a brick-and-mortar casino are designed to excite your senses and encourage risky behavior, but are they truly more problematic than online casinos?[7] One of the biggest problems with online gambling is that it creates more disinhibition than does in-person gambling.[8] That same anonymity that draws players to online casinos also frees them from having to keep up appearances; as a result, they may bet more money or allow their emotions even freer rein than they would in a brick-and-mortar casino. That anonymity also frees you from certain shame-based behaviors you might find at a live establishment.[9] While this may sound good in theory, it often has dangerous repercussions; for example, if you don’t have to worry about the shame of everyone seeing you pull out a credit card for the fifth time, there’s little to stop you from doing so. The biggest threat may be the convenience factor, however.[10] When the casino is as close as your phone, there’s little to stop you from gambling around the clock. For problem gamblers, this can eliminate any sort of safe space, as it’s no longer a question of just avoiding the casino — the casino is in your back pocket, after all. Despite all this, however, there’s little scientific evidence proving that one casino is more addictive or dangerous than the other. At the end of the day, anyone with a gambling problem will need to avoid both options, as it’s incredibly easy to lose more than you bargained for at both types of casinos.[11]

Betting and Your Brain: The Psychology of Gambling

Now that we’ve looked at some of the differences between mobile and live gambling, it’s worth taking a look at gambling on a more basic level. Below, we’ll take a deep dive into gambling’s effect on the brain, looking at what makes it fun — and what can cause it to take a darker turn.

What Happens in Your Brain When You Gamble?

Gambling causes a wave of changes in your brain activity, so much so that it can cause people to behave much differently than they otherwise would. In fact, the effect that gambling has on your brain has often been compared to the effect seen by abusing drugs.[12] And as it turns out, the secret sauce that causes gambling to have such a potent effect on your brain is uncertainty. Uncertainty causes your brain to release the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is also released while eating delicious food, having sex, and yes, doing drugs. Dopamine is known as the “feel-good neurotransmitter” — so it’s no surprise that people would chase the high that comes with it.[13] Think about it: as fun as it may sound to win every time you pull the lever on that slot machine, deep down you probably realize that the thrill would vanish quickly. You may appreciate having the extra cash, of course, but pulling the lever would soon feel like a job rather than a leisure activity — and that’s because the uncertainty (and therefore the dopamine) would be gone. There’s more to the experience than just the release of dopamine, however — and, as we’ll soon see, there’s a downside to taking repeated hits of that feel-good neurotransmitter.

Why is Gambling Fun?

Dopamine is released by the uncertainty r elated to each spin of the wheel or turn of the cards — but the gambling itself is far from the only thing preying on your senses at a casino. There are also flashing lights, clanging sounds, and even certain smells that are all designed to help make you more willing to part with your money.[14] These effects are primal, making them nearly impossible to resist.[15] Even worse, these lights, sounds, and smells can partner with reward uncertainty to form a devastating cocktail. “Win-associated cues” — the lights, sounds, and so on that a machine makes when you come out ahead — are carefully calibrated to create excitement and trick you into thinking you’ve won more than you have (or make you think you’re an overall winner when you aren’t), which in turn can cause you to gamble more.[16] All this is to say that gambling is fun because it causes your brain to release the same chemicals you’d experience if you were actually having fun — but the fun caused by gambling is often illusory at best.

The Next Wave in Exploiting Your Brain Activity

While these effects have long been known by researchers (and exploited by casinos), they’ve actually become more pronounced with the rise of electronic gaming and more sophisticated machines. One of the most exciting developments in gaming (as far as casinos are concerned, anyway) is the development of “losses disguised as wins.”[17] There are certain machines that allow such complex bets that players are nearly guaranteed to win frequently — and these complex bets also disguise the fact that the players are always losing more than they’re winning. The complexity of the bets isn’t the only thing working against the players. They’re also accompanied by flashing lights and sounds — giving you all the thrill of victory with none of the spoils. All of this is highly effective, as it turns out. These machines are generally considered to be more fun by players, who prefer them to the old-fashioned models.[18] Again, though, that fun isn’t all it seems on the surface. Those complex machines lull players into a rhythmic state researchers have labeled “dark flow,” in which they lose themselves in the act of playing.[19] This can cause sessions to last for hours or even days, and losses can mount as a result. While fun at the time, the lost time and money eventually add up. The end result is a higher likelihood of developing a gambling problem — and the depression that goes with it.[20]

What Causes People to Have Gambling Problems?

All of these effects are toxic enough — but they affect every gambler, and not every gambler suffers from addiction. What makes one person more susceptible to problem gambling than others? According to new findings by researchers, a region of the brain known as the supplementary eye field (SEF) is involved in risky decision making.[21] As the name suggests, it’s also one of the most important regions of the brain for controlling the movement of your eyes — so all of those flashing lights are starting to make sense. A dopamine deficiency can have a powerful impact on how the SEF functions — making people with less dopamine in their brains more susceptible to compulsive gambling and other risky behaviors.[22] It gets worse, though. Just like with addictive drugs, dopamine gets less rewarding the more you’re exposed to it, and repeatedly flooding your brain with dopamine — through, say, gambling — can actually rewire your neural pathways.[23] Ultimately, gambling can be so rewarding that your brain will unleash a hit of dopamine even if you lose.[24] This all adds up to people who are predisposed to suffering from a gambling problem finding themselves in a recursive loop, hoping to solve their dopamine problem by flooding their minds with an artificial supply. Just like with losses disguised as wins, however, while the dopamine might feel good in the moment, it’s also incurring a debt that will become harder and harder to repay.

Other Issues Involved with Problem Gamblers

While brain chemistry may be the primary culprit responsible for compulsive gambling and other problematic behaviors, it certainly doesn’t act alone. There are a variety of environmental factors that compound the issue. Many problem gamblers find the act of gambling to be rewarding independent of wins and losses, and seek out action in order to stave off stress or other undesirable feelings.[25] These people are more likely to gamble alone, so mobile casinos are especially attractive to them. However, these people are also less likely to have strong social support networks, and so may seek out live gambling as a way to interact with others. For these people, playing by themselves at home doesn’t “scratch the itch,” so they’re just as likely to play at brick-and-mortar casinos as well. Gambling addicts are notoriously prone to shame as well — possibly even more than other addicts, which explains the high suicide rate among problem gamblers.[26][27] This shame prevents them from seeking help while also causing them to chase their losses, and since many games rely on the false impression of skill, they’re convinced they can simply win their money back through superior play, thereby solving all their problems. [28] This isn’t a small or isolated issue, either. Estimates peg the number of problem gamblers at around 2% of the U.S. population, which means there are as many as 6 million compulsive gamblers struggling with their addiction every day.[29]

Gambling Addicts at a Glance

Gambling addiction doesn’t affect everyone equally. There are certain factors that make people more likely to develop a problem with compulsive gambling, and according to a study published by the U.K. Gambling Commission in 2016, problem gamblers are:[30] [wpsm_list type=”bullet”]

  • Five times more likely to be male than female
  • More likely to be unemployed
  • Most likely to be in the 25-to-34 demographic
  • More likely to be black than white or Asian
  • More likely to demonstrate signs of a preexisting mental health condition

[/wpsm_list] These findings echo those reported in a similar study performed by the Australian Gambling Research Centre.[31] This data indicates that those members of society who are already most vulnerable in general were also most likely to be vulnerable to a gambling addiction. Indeed, those who are prone to problematic gambling behaviors have also been found to be more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, suffer from mood disorders, or struggle with their health.[32][33][34] Having access to a casino or betting parlor is also a significant risk factor, as those who live closer to such establishments are more likely to struggle with addictive behavior.[35] However, the rise of mobile casinos is rendering that concern moot, as it’s ensuring that everyone with an internet connection has access to a place they can gamble.

Solving the Problem: Tackling the Growing Addiction Issue

Given the unbelievable scope of the gambling problem, many people believe it to be a public health issue.[36] As a result, significant resources are being devoted to curbing problematic behavior. There have been a variety of potential solutions proposed to help reduce the problem, and these solutions show varying degrees of promise.

The Issue of Legality

One of the most common proposals for tackling the issue of problem gambling is making the act itself illegal. Many of the places tha t have legalized gambling are loath to overturn their policies, as opening up casinos and other gaming establishments is believed to have a significant positive economic impact on the surrounding area (although it seems those impacts are often overstated).[37] Instead, most of these places take a portion of their gaming revenue and direct it towards programs dedicated to helping problem gamblers. There has been little research done on whether re-criminalizing gambling can reduce addiction rates, but there is at least some evidence that legalizing it leads to an increase in problematic behavior.[38] Criminalizing gambling or increasing the size of the social safety net for compulsive gamblers in areas where wagering is legal are two of the most common public health responses to the issue of addiction. Many of the most effective strategies, however, occur on a more personal level.

A Possible Solution: Setting Limits

One of the most powerful tools for keeping problematic behavior in check is setting limits. For gamblers, this could mean setting limits on: [wpsm_list type=”bullet”]

  • How long they play in a given session
  • How much money they deposit in a given timeframe
  • How much they can lose in a given session
  • How much they can wager in a given amount of time

[/wpsm_list] These are all extremely effective at impacting gambling behaviors, suggesting that they could be an important tool in the fight against addiction.[39] There has been a recent push among online casinos to at least offer these limit-setting options, as mobile gaming providers have access to more data about individual players’ betting habits than do brick-and-mortar establishments. It would be far simpler for these websites to restrict a player’s access as well, as they can simply limit their banking options or prevent them from accessing the site within a given timeframe. There’s one serious issue with this solution, however: compulsive gamblers are the least likely to consent to limits on their ability to play.[39] And, given that as much as 33% of a casino’s revenue is believed to come from problem gamblers, these providers aren’t likely to insist on mandatory limits anytime soon.[40]

The Future of Gambling

Gambling is here to stay, but as science develops a better understanding of what makes a bettor tick, it becomes more likely that we can begin to offer help to the most problematic gamblers. Any increase in our ability to curb negative behavior could have tremendous social effects, while also ensuring that these games remain available for the rest of society to enjoy. As usual, though, it appears that the bulk of the effort to solve the gambling crisis will have to come from the individual, rather than the government or the gaming establishments themselves. Players will need to learn to set (and adhere to) strict play limits, and they’ll need to be empowered to seek help if it becomes necessary. Gambling may not be going anywhere, but that certainly doesn’t mean that gambling addiction has to stick around as well.

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[38] M. Abbot, “The epidemiology and impact of gambling disorder and other gambling-related harm,” 2017.

[39] M. Auer and M. D. Griffiths, “Voluntary Limit Setting and Player Choice in Most Intense Online Gamblers: An Empirical Study of Gambling Behaviour,” J. Gambl. Stud., vol. 29, no. 4, pp. 647–660, Dec. 2013.

[40] Department of Human Services, “Legislative Report Annual Report on Percentage of Gambling Revenues that Come From Problem Gamblers,” 2018.