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What Causes Gambling Addiction?

A. Tom Horvath, Ph.D., ABPP, Kaushik Misra, Ph.D., Amy K. Epner, Ph.D., and Galen Morgan Cooper, Ph.D. , edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D.

In the previous section, we described gambling addiction as a specific type of addiction called an activity addiction. There is no one single cause of gambling addiction. Instead, there are multiple causes that can be grouped into four basic categories. These four categories are: 1) biological causes, 2) psychological causes, 3) socio-cultural causes, and 4) spiritual causes. Psychologists call this the Bio-Psycho-Social-Spiritual Model of addiction. We generally understand these causes to be inter-related. Therefore, each of these four factors contributes in some manner to the formation of a gambling addiction.

The biological causes of gambling addiction include each person's unique physiology and genetics. First, people differ in the degree to which they enjoy gambling as a form of entertainment. Some people may enjoy this form of entertainment so much that it becomes very tempting and difficult to resist. Other people would not experience a similar difficulty. This is because they do not experience the same degree of enjoyment. Likewise, the ability to temper impulsive desires with rational thought is a brain function that varies among people. Some people may have an impaired ability to resist certain types of impulses. Thus, these folks would be at greater risk for developing an addiction because of their genetic vulnerability. Oddly enough, normal human brain functioning and brain chemistry make people vulnerable to addiction. Healthy brain chemistry and functioning motivate us to repeat behaviors that are pleasurable. Anthropologically, this function ensured we performed behaviors that ensured our survival such as eating and sex.  Unfortunately, it also makes human beings vulnerable to developing harmful addictions to pleasurable activities.

Psychology also helps us to understand the many causes of gambling addiction. Psychological research has helped us to understand why people repeat certain activities, even when the repetition of these activities leads to harmful consequences. This is because people learn to anticipate some benefit from the addiction even though it is harmful. These benefits can include: 1) stress reduction, 2) relief from boredom, 3) pleasurable sensations, 4) coping with negative feelings or situations, or 4) simply the benefit of avoiding withdrawal symptoms.

People have varying skills and abilities to cope with unpleasant emotions or circumstances. When people have poor coping skills they are more vulnerable to gambling addiction. Coping skills are like having tools in a toolbox. The more tools you have, the easier it is to fix something by using the right tool for the right purpose. If you only have a hammer and a saw, you will likely use these tools too often, and the ability to fix things is limited. Many people with addictions don't have enough coping tools in their toolbox. They over rely on the one they do have- their addiction. Addictions provide a temporary, but ultimately ineffective way of dealing with life's problems. Likewise, people have varying degrees of stress and varying skills in stress reduction. People with high stress, that lack stress reduction skills, are also more vulnerable to addiction.

Psychological research also helps us to understand that motivation is critical to recovery from addiction. Without sufficient motivation, people cannot easily change unhealthy behaviors. Simply being aware that gambling activities are causing problems is usually insufficient motivation to discontinue unhealthy behavior. However, psychologists can help strengthen people's motivation through therapy and specialized techniques.

Many psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety often co-occur with addiction. These other psychological disorders make people more vulnerable to addiction. This is because people may gamble in an effort to temporarily relieve the unpleasant symptoms of disorders such as depression or anxiety.

Socio-cultural influences also contribute to the development of gambling addiction. For our purposes, the term culture describes a group's learned and shared pattern of values and beliefs. These values and beliefs guide group members' behavior and their social interactions. Human beings have a powerful need for social interaction. For this reason, it becomes important to consider the compelling social nature of many addictions if recovery is to be successful. Some types of addictions afford opportunities for pleasing social discourse and interaction. For example, gambling casinos strive to provide an exciting social atmosphere. Players often interact with, and support each other. Another cultural component of gambling addiction is the cultural acceptance of a behavior. Some states, territories or provinces have sanctioned lottery games. This suggests a cultural acceptance of gambling.

The greatest social influence is the family. This is how culture is transmitted from one generation to the next. Children learn from their family members about games of chance. For instance, suppose the only time a child sees her parents laughing and enjoying themselves is while they are playing poker with their neighbors. This child learns that playing poker is a great stress reliever in her family.

Spirituality is another causal factor that can determine whether an addiction develops and flourishes. Spirituality reflects a belief that life has a meaning and purpose. This definition is inclusive and respectful. It includes the many different, specific beliefs that people have about that meaning and purpose. For some people, spirituality includes specific beliefs that there is something greater than our individual existence. People might call this a higher power; a God; many gods; the life force; the universe; Source; or Spirit (to name just a few). For other people, there is no higher power or religion attached to that belief. These people derive meaning and purpose through a personal set of values and goals. The lack of a meaning and purpose in life leads to a disconnection from ourselves and each other. As addiction progresses this disconnection increases. This disconnection causes a failure to live in harmony with the universal laws or principles that ordinarily guide our behavior. These specific universal laws and principles may vary according to different faiths and religions. Nonetheless, the lack of a spiritual anchor can also lead to the development of an addiction.

These four primary causes of gambling addiction are discussed in more detail in our topic center on addictions. We will also discuss these in the following sections, "How do you get addicted to gambling?"


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