Gambling is the risking of something of value (either real money or virtual goods) on an event that is determined at least in part by chance, with the hope of gaining something of value. The event can be anything from a football match to a scratchcard, and the value of the prize may range from nothing to a life-changing sum of money. Although most people have gambled at some point in their lives, many do not realize that gambling is a dangerous activity. The most common form of gambling is playing casino games, such as slot machines and roulette. These are played in brick-and-mortar and online casinos, but other forms of gambling include betting on sports events, buying lottery or scratch tickets, and even office pool betting. Regardless of the type of gambling, these activities cause the brain to release dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter that can increase a person’s urge to gamble.
While most people think of gambling as a game of chance, there are skills that can be used to improve the odds of winning. For example, a bettor’s knowledge of strategy can help him or her improve his or her chances of winning in certain card games, and knowing about horses and jockeys can improve predictions of probable outcomes in horse races. These types of skills are not considered to be gambling, but they can influence a bettor’s behavior and lead to an increased likelihood of engaging in problem gambling.
Researchers are also trying to understand how and why people become addicted to gambling. One way to do this is by using longitudinal research. Longitudinal studies track a sample of individuals over time, which allows researchers to identify and isolate the causes of an individual’s gambling behavior. These studies can reveal which factors are most likely to influence a person’s gambling participation and whether or not they have a positive or negative impact on an individual’s quality of life.
A key challenge in studying gambling is that it is a complex, multifaceted phenomenon. Consequently, there is a need for diverse perspectives to be brought to bear on the topic. This is particularly important because research scientists, psychiatrists and other treatment care clinicians, and public policy makers often frame their questions about gambling in different ways, depending on their disciplinary training and world views.
To study gambling, researchers must also consider the way in which gambling is promoted and sold. This can involve everything from promoting certain ‘hot numbers’ to encouraging betters to place bets on complicated markets. It can even involve physical marketing, such as’spin’ machines that display the results of a random-number generator without giving players any control over when or how the reels stop. This kind of technology, which arguably undermines the supposedly neutral nature of gambling, has been shown to have the same addictive potential as video games that feature ‘free-to-play’ loot boxes. (Nature Human Behaviour, Vol 2, 2018.) This is because the process of opening and exploring a “loot box” elicits the same brain responses as a game of chance.