Why Are Gamblers Addicted to Losing?

Gambler Cringing With his Hand to his Head at a Casino Table

The topic of this post is problem gambling, specifically pathological gambling.

Gambling addiction is a terrible topic to cover, but I think a necessary one for those of us who make our living from gaming.

The question I’m asked most often related to gambling addiction is “why is [insert name] addicted to losing?” It’s a heartbreaking situation, and I’m often left at a loss as to what to say.

This post seeks to help explain problem gambling. I’ll offer several different theories and perspectives to help us answer the question of why problem gamblers seem to be addicted to losing money.

Some Background on Problem Gambling

We have every reason to believe that Paleolithic humans gambled. The historical evidence of gambling reaches back at least 5,000 years, well before the invention of the written word and right up against the beginning of recorded history. If we extrapolate from our modern data set, it’s easy to imagine that problem gambling existed as soon as the first bet was placed.

Ludomania (that’s the technical term for gambling addiction) affects people from all walks of life. It knows no limitation in terms of race, gender, class, or creed. The DSM-5 reclassified so-called “pathological gambling” as an addictive disorder in the light of evidence that problem gamblers exhibit many of the same characteristics as people addicted to drugs or alcohol.

What defines gambling addiction? That depends on who you ask.

The American Psychiatric Association identifies it as “repeated gambling behavior that continues even when it causes significant problems.” By that definition, gambling addiction is very close to alcohol or drug addiction.

The Mayo Clinic defines gambling addiction as “the uncontrollable urge to keep gambling despite the toil it takes on your life,” more poetic than the APA description from above, but basically saying the same thing.

Research has found that as many as 5.3% of adults worldwide engage in some form of problem gambling. That’s 5.3% of some 5 billion people, or 270 million adults worldwide gambling despite the problems it causes. That’s a group of people larger than the populations of Japan and Mexico combined.

Gambling Addiction Myths and Realities

Here are some common and potentially dangerous myths about gambling addiction.

Myth: People that don’t gamble every day don’t have a gambling problem.

This myth is every bit as ridiculous and misguided as when people say the same thing about alcohol and drug use.

Problem substance use, like problem gaming, is about the issues created by the substance, or the game, or the drug. A person who gambles once or twice a year can still exhibit problem gambling symptoms.

Myth: Gambling problems aren’t addictions, they’re moral failings or a lack of intelligence.

The best science on the subject says that problem gamblers receive a similar kick in brain chemistry as people who inject heroin and cocaine.

Addiction to gambling is no different from diabetes or cancer – a medical issue with specific courses of treatment that should be discussed with medical professionals. Problem gamblers can’t moralize or will themselves well.

Closeup of Hand Playing Slot Machine

Myth: Rich people can’t be addicted to gambling because they can afford to lose.

The problems that come from inappropriate gambling are far more than financial. It’s absolutely true that poor people face more financial repercussions from gaming than the wealthy, but the relationship issues, legal headaches, loss of jobs, and mental health crises pay your checkbook no mind.

Overcoming the financial difficulties of improper gaming is definitely a step in the recovery process, but it’s nowhere near the first or most important one.

Myth: You only see gambling addiction with casino games like slot machines and blackjack.

This is bogus. Quasi-gambling, like stock market or financial market invest, cryptocurrency speculation, and even mobile game play can all lead to problem gaming.

This form of addiction doesn’t even require the involvement of real money, as people saddled with virtual gaming problems can attest to. When something of some value is put up based on the outcome of some event, gambling is taking place.

Theories of Gambling Addiction

After reading tons of articles, listening to hours of podcasts, and just generally doing my homework, the only thing I can say for sure is that nobody seems to agree on the root causes of problem gambling.

I read three-dozen or so scientific papers as I was preparing this post. Here’s a quick survey at just some of the purposes of gambling suggested by the best minds in modern science:

  • gambling is a leftover adaptation pattern that benefited us at some point in our evolution
  • people gamble as an unconscious continuation of ancient magical or religious ceremonies
  • gambling is normal animal behavior as shaped by a very specific type of reinforcement
  • gamblers are in it purely for profit
  • gamblers are engaging in an acceptably-adult form of play that’s otherwise unexpressed
  • problem gambling is a symptom of a larger psychodynamic conflict
  • problem gamblers are just over-indulging in a useful socialization space
  • gamblers are addicted to the various stimulations provided by casinos

I believe if you ask ten gambling counselors for their take on the causes of gambling addiction, you’re likely to get ten different answers.

Thoughts on Being “Addicted to Losing”

An important common thread among all these answers is what’s missing from them – I haven’t once read about anyone being literally “addicted to losing.”

It’s easy to see why some people would believe their loved one is addicted to losing money, but it’s highly possible that from the gambler’s perspective this isn’t the case at all.

Blackjack Table with Cards and Casino Chips, Angry Man with Arms Crossed

It may be counterproductive to wonder why someone would be addicted to something as awful as losing money. Our focus instead should be on the very real factors that lead to gambling addiction in some people.

Research carried out in 2016 by the UK Gambling Commission made some interesting discoveries when looking to create a profile of a typical gambling addict. According to the Commission, problem gamblers are most likely to be:

  • male (5x more men have gambling problems compared to women)
  • unemployed/not enrolled in school or vocational training
  • aged 25-34
  • from a minority ethnic background
  • indicating clear signs of mental ill health
  • rated poor in terms of general health and well-being

Anyone who feels anxiety or stress related to their gambling habit, or who is betting more than they can afford to lose, or who has to gamble ever-larger amounts to get the same release from gaming, is most likely a problem gambler. That’s true regardless of whether they’re literally “addicted to losing” or not.

To get to the root of the question – do gamblers get a kick from losing, just as much as from winning? Research is divided.

The excitement of big risks in anticipation of big rewards is every bit as intoxicating as a shot of morphine or a sniffed line of cocaine. That reward pathway doesn’t shut down after a loss. According to a 2009 study out of Stanford, 92% of gamblers studied received identical doses of feel-good chemicals from losing and winning sessions.

While it may not be a literal addiction to losing, the release of feel-good chemicals after a loss reinforces what may otherwise be interpreted as damaging behavior, pretty much short-circuiting the normal means of behavioral control. If a loss feels just as good as a win, there’s less incentive to modify your behavior post-losing streak.

A disturbing side note from this research may also be at play. When study participants believed they had a low chance of winning, their brains reacted to an unexpected even-money payout even stronger than when they won a jackpot with high confidence of winning overall. The chemical responsible is dopamine, a pathway infamous for requiring increasing amounts of stimulation to receive an equal reward.

Could gambler’s expectations play a huge part in the behavior we identify as “addicted to losing?” More research is needed, but the latest science is pointing towards a giant “Yes.”

In Summary

The good news is that modern medicine has many treatment options for problem gambling. From talk therapy to group therapy to medications, people who want to confront and deal with their gambling issues have an array of plans to choose from.

If you or someone you love has a gambling problem and you want support, please reach out to a group like the National Council on Problem Gambling, who can be reached 24 hours a day at 1-800-522-4700.