Gambling has been around since the dawn of mankind. Whether it was ancient romans rolling dice in the streets or guy in his basement deciding whether or not to take the Steelers at -7.5 over the Eagles, most everyone has gambled at least once in their lives. So what is it, why do people gamble?
According to google.com, gambling is defined as “play games for a chance of money”. One does not necessarily have to play a game to gamble however, for instance a person can bet on the outcome of a football game or a horse race. It is logical that those who gamble must get some satisfaction out of it, or else they would not gamble. And this satisfaction is not likely to come solely from winning the money or prize. This is because, according to data from online gambling sites gathered by the Wall Street Journal, on any given day a person only has a 30% chance of winning money. Many gamblers likely wouldn’t know this going in however, because casinos and gambling sites try to keep this data hidden so as not to deter potential gamblers. Say a man goes to a casino to gamble, he sits down at the slot machine he plays 10 times, this slot machine cost $1 to play and pays out $2 for every win, out of those 10 times he wins only 3 times, coming away losing $6. If this mans only satisfaction came from winning money, he would leave unsatisfied and would likely not gamble again. But this not the case in reality. Many people continue to gamble despite losing money, so what is their motivation, and what satisfaction do they get out of gambling? The answer can be found in the brain.
Studies have shown that when people gamble, the brain’s reward system becomes activated in a way that is similar to a person taking a drug. In one study participants were placed in a fMRI scanner, which measures brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow, and played simulated gambling games. The results showed increased activity in the ventral striatum, which is the brain’s reward center.
This image shows the brain activity of a person who won a game of chance vs. someone who almost won the same game. The picture shows that even when people lose, simply playing the game stimulates the brain nearly as much as winning the game. This is the satisfaction that people get from gambling, and this is people’s motivation to keep gambling. When a person gambles, dopamine is released into the body (Linnet et al., 2011; Joutsa et al., 2012) this causes pleasure in a similar way that a drug such as cocaine might. A person doesn’t even have to win to feel excitement and stimulation, that comes simply from the act of gambling. Thus, people continue to gamble in the face of losses because of the stimulation they get from taking the risk.
The take away from this is that people gamble, and continue to gamble, simply because it feels good, gambling is a high of sorts, and people gamble to feel that high. But this can become a problem if not controlled. People can become addicted to gambling the same way they can become addicted to alcohol or drugs. Their are countless stories of people who lost everything because of their gambling problem. So, while gambling can be fun and exciting, one must be very careful, because the same thing that makes us want to gamble can cause us to become addicted to it.