Why Do People Like Gambling?

Bram Welch
4 January 2023
351 Views
why-do-people-like-gambling

The aphorism “the house always wins” is so widely known, so it is reasonable to ask – why do people gamble especially when they know that they will lose in the long run? Endless surveys and studies show that there is an array of reasons that people start gambling. The attitude of the relevant society, along with how socially accepted the activity is, has an influence. The UK has a relatively liberal attitude towards gambling, and fewer British people consider it taboo.

The motivation for gambling is multifaceted – it could be social, biological, or even economical. The smorgasbord of theories and motivations are probably complementary to each other rather than inharmonious.

Social Reasons

Someone might get involved with gambling due to social reasons. This does not necessarily mean social pressure but rather that their social life has put them in a position where gambling is an option. The work’s Christmas party might be at the local greyhound track, and they have a flutter to join in. It is unlikely that someone will pressure them into gambling but simply being in the situation is more encouragement than any other day.

Biological Reasons

There are empirically proven reasons that people enjoy gambling related to the rewards system within our brains. Humans derive pleasure from pleasurable activities because they stimulate our mesolimbic system. Dopamine is released in the brain which gives us a pleasant feeling and reinforces that we might like to do it again. This pathway is stimulated by so many things including sex, music, and food.

This dopamine pathway can be unnaturally stimulated by engaging in recreational drugs and gambling. Gambling has been found to stimulate the production of 10 times more dopamine than other stimuli. This is identical to the reaction opioids and other illicit substances get from this area of the brain. The more potent a stimulus is, the more reinforcing it becomes.

Reinforced Gambling

How likely we are to return to gambling is linked to this area of the brain too. Gambling, along with drugs, is one of the primary reinforcers because they activate our pleasure senses naturally. We don’t have to learn to enjoy them as we do with secondary reinforcers such as money. $100 to a young child is meaningless until they learn the value.

When it comes to gambling, several factors affect how likely you are to return to it. The first factor is satiation – the level of satisfaction achieved from gambling. This could be relative, for example, if you’d had a terrible day and it brightens after a visit to the casino, you are more likely to reinforce that behaviour because of the relatively huge boost it provided.

Two more important factors in the biological aspect are how quickly the pleasurable response happens and how reliably it will happen. Immediate and reliably pleasurable responses are more likely to be reinforced. This is partly why drugs are so addictive because they provide the same instant effect every time.

Losing

The enjoyment of gambling is not exclusive to the winners. People can still enjoy themselves while losing. This is down to the fact that dopamine is still released when making losses from gambling. People are not just paying to win, they are paying to enjoy themselves.

Research from the University of Stanford in California found that most people, 92%, operate with a loss threshold. This is an amount of money that they perceive to be too much to lose. However, smaller losses were deemed not to affect the enjoyment of a gambling experience. One author of the study Sridhar Narayanan said that people are conscious they are more likely to lose in the long run.

Another fascinating insight into the human brain was discovered through a study carried out at University Colle London by Robb Rutledge. He experimented on over 18,000 participants and found that losing streaks can increase the pleasurable response to a win. Players can have a bigger response to winning £10 after losing several times than if they had won £10 on the first attempt.

For many losing is simply the price you pay to engage in an activity that you enjoy. They can view how much they lose as the same as paying for a ticket to a football match.

Fixed-Price Betting Terminals

Tristan Harris, who used to work as a design ethicist at Google, explains how the colour scheme of your phone is designed to keep you engaged. The human eye is sensitive to warm colours, eye tracking tests have shown that we are more attracted to bright colours, and those containing red hues. This explains the colour of your notification badges, but bright red features prominently in most casino games and all of the table games. Fixed-price betting terminals often contain emulations of these table games and plenty of stimulating sounds. These are all responsible for triggering enjoyment responses to gambling.

These betting machines also give people enjoyment because of a perceived sense of gaming them. People believe they operate with adaptive logic, meaning they pay out more during one period and pay out less in the following period. Players attempt to skim these machines by gaming the odds and taking the perceived first couple of small wins. There is an element of enjoyment extracted from that. One young male participant spoke on this effect in a study of fixed-odds betting terminals: “They are programmed to give you small wins, and then you get into a false sense of contentment where you think, I have won this amount, so maybe I am going to win some more.”

The Eight Gambling Typologies

In November 2018, the UK Gambling Commission went on an information mission and commissioned research into the reasons people gamble. As a result, they came up with eight classifications for gambling motivation. The research was not quantitive but qualitative as it did not contribute to their statistical research but provided more information about people’s relationships to gambling. These are the eight typologies:

  1. Social – These are gamblers who enjoy doing it with family and friends to be sociable and have fun. They tend to only play when someone recommends and they tend to prefer bingo, race betting, and arcades. They are also the youngest of the typology, typically under 25.
  2. Wise Decision – These people are confident they can win using their skill. They like to add excitement to a game and tend to join in when there’s a special game or the rules change. They tend to bet on sports and be well-paid males under 45 from an ethnic minority background.
  3. Me Time – These people see gambling as a pass time. They might have a little bit in their online account and prefer online slot machines and casino games.
  4. Just What I Do – These are simply regular gamblers. Winning or losing is irrelevant to them and they tend to have a lower income.
  5. Along For The Ride – These tend to be females under 35 who enjoy gambling because they get to be sociable while doing it.
  6. Money To Burn – These players tend to use free bets and so feel like they have nothing to lose. They are also people on relatively lower incomes.
  7. Feeling Lucky – This is self-explanatory, they were feeling lucky at the time. Interestingly these gamblers tend to be very well-paid young males from ethnic minority backgrounds.
  8. For The Money – These are lottery players that like the idea of winning even from a long shot. They are non-problem gamblers over the age of 55 who prefer lotteries.

Conclusion

There are plenty of reasons why someone might start gambling. How socially acceptable gambling is viewed within society is important, but there are deeper biological reasons too.

The UKGC have created eight typologies that attempt to explain the myriad reasons why people are motivated to gamble. We must remember that it is our biology that makes us return to gambling and this is relevant even when losing – you don’t have to win to enjoy gambling. Gambling software and casinos are designed for you to enjoy them in a similar way to smartphones.

Author Bram Welch

After working in journalism, teaching and hosting radio, I am now enjoying working on long-form articles around the gambling industry and iGaming for UKCasino.com & Casinogrounds.com