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Science of Gambling

David Brill looks at the psychological, biological and social factors that drive people to gamble.

by David Brill

Photo courtesy of David Brill

Why draws people to the poker table? Gamblers seem to thrive from the thrill of playing and the hope of a big win.

Gutshot is London's first dedicated poker club and now the biggest of its kind in Europe. In a little over two years it has acquired some 15,000 members, expanding from a few tables in a dingy basement to take over the spacious bar complex next door. The success of Gutshot is symptomatic of a wider trend - and it's not just poker that is on the rise: gambling is everywhere and spreading fast. Britain is on the verge of opening its first 'super-casino', in addition to over 130 existing casinos. Fruit machines, blackjack, roulette - even bingo is becoming more popular.

So why do people gamble? What makes it so enjoyable? Why do some people become addicted while others simply enjoy a flutter on the horses every now and then? And could drug therapy be the answer to problem gambling?

John Ioannou is the card room manager at Gutshot. With a firsthand experience of gambling, Ioannou understands the emotion that accompanies success at the poker table. "The elation of winning, obviously, is great. It's a buzz you can't tell anybody about unless they've actually done it themselves. You're on cloud cuckoo land for a little while."

But losing also involves its fair share of emotion. Ioannou remembers feeling sick after losing up to £1,000 ($1,898) in one session. Gambling involves abandoning self-control and he says that even if a gambler limits the amount of money he will gamble, once at the poker club, his mindset often changes. "You go to the card-room, you do your 200 quid ($380), pull up another 200 quid ($380), then another 200 quid ($380). Now your mind's not straight, it's not as clear as when you left home", he says.

Gambling psychology

So what exactly is going on in a gambler's mind? Professor Peter Collins, director of the Centre for the Study of Gambling at Salford University, does research related to ethics and gambling, problem gambling and internet gambling. "Why people gamble is a good and puzzling question," he says. "On the face of it, it looks very strange that people should stand in front of machines and pour money into them, knowing that they're going to lose."

But gamblers don't seem to be thinking of the financial loss when they're in front of a slot machine - what draws people to gambling seems to be the thrill of playing and the hope of a big win. Collins says that if you asked a gambler how much he hoped to win and then offered him that money provided he didn't gamble, the gambler would refuse. Similarly, if you told him he could gamble but there would be no money involved, it would take the fun out of it and he wouldn't be interested.

Different forms of gambling each have their own appeal and someone who plays casino games gets a different kind of thrill from someone who buys lottery tickets. Collins says that the buzz experienced from playing a casino game is similar to the thrill of riding a rollercoaster. In contrast, buying a lottery ticket fuels a person's financial fantasy life. "I sometimes describe it as soft financial pornography," he says. "It spices up the fantasy of being suddenly and fantastically rich."

Neurobiology and problem gambling

Tax calculations suggest that 78% of the British population gambled at some point during 2005. Yet the rates of problem gambling in this country are relatively low, standing at less than 1% of the population. With such a discrepancy, the issue of pathological gambling has begun to move from the realm of sociology to neuroscience in an attempt to explain why some people find gambling so much more addictive than others.

A study has found that there is less activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex area of the brain of pathological gamblers.

Research in this field is being led by American researchers and at the Problem Gambling Clinic at the Yale University School of Medicine, scientists are studying the neurobiology of pathological gambling. Some of the work done by Dr Marc Potenza, an associate professor at the clinic, involves looking at the differences in brain activation between pathological gamblers and people who don't gamble. One study has already found that the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain involved in decision-making and impulse control, is less active in pathological gamblers."Less activation of this brain region is often found in individuals with impulsive aggression, and it's also been implicated in mood disorders," says Potenza.

Linking the condition to a specific region of the brain has raised the possibility of targeted drug therapies. The clinic has been involved in treatment trials, including the largest study published to date looking at the use of a drug called Nalmefene to treat pathological gambling.

Nalmefene is thought to act on brain circuits containing the chemical dopamine, which form a key component of the brain's natural reward system. Reducing activity in these brain cells should reduce the natural highs felt when gambling. "The drug was found to be superior to a placebo in terms of reducing gambling-related thoughts and behaviours," says Potenza.

Social factors at play?

Some, however, are less keen to label pathological gambling as a medical disorder. Dr. Scott Vrecko, a sociologist at the London School of Economics (LSE), stresses the importance of other factors: "If there are no casinos or opportunities to gamble in a city, that city is not going to have very many gambling problems. If the proportion of individuals involved in gambling rises, the number of people with gambling problems is going to rise too."

Vrecko is against the 'medicalisation' of different aspects of life and doesn't think that complex social problems like gambling have a strictly biological basis. "I think that we should be wary of moving too far towards primarily medical explanations," he explains.

The appeal of gambling is probably a complex interaction between biological, social and psychological factors. In the wake of the current gambling boom, particularly on the internet, only time will tell whether problem gambling becomes more prevalent, and whether drug treatments will prove a successful solution.

But one thing is for sure - the emotional highs and lows will always be a key part of the attraction of gambling. "I remember the first tournament I won," recalls John. "I thought I was the best poker player in the world. When we're winning we think we're great, but when we're losing we just can't understand why."

For more information:

University of Salford - Center for the Study of Gambling

Rochester Institute of Technology - Factors Contributing to the Development of Pathological Gambling

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First Science 2014