Fueling Gambling Addiction During a Pandemic

Online or in-person casinos are nurturing a devastating addiction and claiming it’s helping the economy

Copyright: Antonio Diaz

In gambling the many must lose in order that the few may win — George Bernard Shaw

Psychologists, like me who have had occasional work with compulsive gamblers, are well aware of what is called the “jackpot mentality,” sometimes referred to as the “lotto mentality” or “trading addiction” and what comes with it — gambling addiction in all three. No matter what you call it, it’s you being led to think you can win big and the industry working to keep that belief fired up in you.

A $20 bet might make you a millionaire! And, like calculating street drug dealers, they give you a “taste” by putting that first wager in your online bank. You’ll be playing with their money. How could it get any better?

I’ve seen them come in not because they want to give up gambling but to keep their marriage intact. They were on the verge of financial collapse and, for one, his wife had discovered he was trying to get a second mortgage on their already mortgaged home. Their home was the only valuable asset left after he had borrowed against his 401K and asked relatives and friends for loans that would never be repaid and they knew it.

There is no secret to nurturing an addiction in an activity such as gambling. Those who work in this industry know how to use it very effectively. Statistics offer proof of their effectiveness in this area.

The global online gambling market is anticipated to be valued at more than 92.9 billion U.S. dollars in 2023. The current size of the market is almost 59 billion U.S. dollars, meaning the size is forecast to double in the upcoming years.

Quarantining during a pandemic has provided a captive audience that craves respite from boredom and the fear of financial devastation. The online gambling market, as evidenced by the spate of TV ads shouting its siren song, is taking its place in gambling enterprises. It includes online casinos, betting (mainly on sports), poker, and other products (which include lotteries, bingo, social gaming, etc.).

Photo by Kay on Unsplash

How to Lure People to Gamble

The formula for providing an incentive to continue gambling once someone has gambled is quite simple. It is derived from a schedule of reinforcement; fixed-ratio, fixed-interval, variable-ratio, and variable-interval.

In other words, the chances of winning may be set to entice and one of the most effective of the schedules is the variable ratio. Here the gambler wins sometimes, but never knows how many tries will be needed to win again; the number of tries keeps changing. It lures the gambler in because they do win occasionally, but not all the time — just enough to keep them trying again and again.

I’ve been to Las Vegas and marveled at an older couple who sat at slot machines all day long pulling the handle and pushing coins into the slot. They were adamant that no one take their seats because any minute they would hit it big and the jackpot would be lost.

If the person won all the time, the casino (whether online or in an actual building) would be losing and it might even discourage the gambler. Where is the excitement if you know exactly what to anticipate each time? The thrill of winning is gone and the casino would go out of business.

Photo by Chris Liverani

Who May Be at Greatest Risk of Compulsive Gambling

In one study, three elements appear to be present in compulsive gambling; a personality disorder, novelty-seeking, and impulsivity.

Certainly, during a lockdown or social isolation, novel seeking would be high on the list of attractions. Gambling can supply the appetite for that experience. But there’s something more here and it’s biological.

Dopamine, that feel-good hormone, is primed. You want more of that rush it gives to you. Studies of gamblers have shown this to be true. In fact, the resulting cascade of this hormone is similar to that achieved by drug addicts, and this is what keeps them addicted.

“…results strongly suggest that dopamine neurons can reinforce risk-seeking behavior (gambling), at least under certain conditions. Risk-seeking behavior has the virtue of promoting exploration and learning, and these results support the hypothesis that dopamine neurons represent the value of exploration.”

Even losing at gambling has an effect on our brains such that gamblers engage in something called “chasing the losses.” If you lost this time, perhaps you’ll win big the next time is the thinking that drives it.

Copyright: welcomia

How Does the Environment Affect Gambling?

Perception plays a major role in gambling and just as rats and pigeons have learned that the sound of a bell means food, gamblers hear it as a winning note. The senses must be brought into play in order to be effective in compelling the wish to continue gambling, even if losses are mounting.

As Pavlov worked with dogs to train them to salivate at the sound of a bell and then to salivate at the sound of a metronome, so people have conditioned behaviors (not reflexes like salivating).

In gambling, the sound of bells and bright lights are used in a Pavlovian manner to signal a dopamine response in gamblers. It’s a learned biological response and the gambler wants more.

The bell and flashing lights lure them in and then sound loud when someone wins. Wouldn’t the sound of some else's machine’s bells and lights also affect them? Yes, even though it’s not their’s, it tells them that winning is possible because someone just hit a jackpot. It’s another reinforcement/reward to keep going.

Not only has the person been conditioned to receive an internal reward from gambling, but they also will not find it easy to quit.

“…gambling may show extreme resistance to extinction and may persist despite aversive consequences that should
reasonably be expected to decrease the likelihood of the behavior.”

In other words, the potential loss of your house or financial ruin won’t stop the gambler. They keep thinking that the next time they’ll win and make up all those losses and things will be fine.

When gambling in a casino, the entire design is planned to enhance perceptual distortion and heighten excitement. The details were laid out in a book written by a former gambler. Casinos are “adult playgrounds” and the design concept was that it should encourage play but in a gambling sense.

Numerous designs have been tested out to evaluate the “lighting, human crowding, color, machine clustering, and layout symmetry.” The researchers found that “Overall, the playground design and females yielded higher scores on each measure than did the gaming design and males.”

Even the odors of casinos have been studied and found to have a positive effect on gambling. By manipulating odors, the results showed greater gambling in areas where an odor was present than when there was no added odor in the same areas. Play was increased by 46% in those odor-treated areas.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez

What About Online Gambling?

The online addictive potential has been demonstrated not by dollars-and-cents gambling but wins in the smartphone game “Candy Crush.” How does a smartphone game do it?

In Candy Crush, the game signals when you just miss getting to the next level by one or two moves. Because near-misses in gambling games have consistently been shown to invigorate play despite being frustrating outcomes, the goal of the present study was to examine whether such near-misses trigger increases in player arousal, frustration and urge to continue play in Candy Crush.

What were the results of this study with a seemingly harmless cell phone game?

These findings suggest that near-misses in Candy Crush play a role in player commitment to the game, and may contribute to players playing longer than intended.

Wrecked Lives and Questionable Benefit to the Economy

Too many families are suffering through financial loss brought on my business closing due to the pandemic and, for some of them, their homes are in jeopardy. As they wait in their homes, not know how to manage finances they may not have, the lure of a break from the stress is right there on the computer, gambling.

Does gambling provide anything at this time other than relief from stress? It may worsen a person’s financial future. Yes, casino jobs that did bring work and economic benefits to workers and communities, are being lost even though some may open with markedly reduced numbers of patrons. Some jobs will come back, but not as before. Many jobs will be lost forever.

Might casinos have a palliative effect on communities in need of economic expansion? The results of one study demonstrated a small effect.

Our results show that casinos had a positive effect on per capita income; casino expansions exerted a small, positive effect on both per capita income growth and job growth. However, the effect of casino expansions on 10‐year per capita income growth dissipated…

In fact, online gambling during a pandemic is now seen as a health hazard.

Online gambling may be particularly concerning due to its availability and velocity; online non-sports gambling has been associated with higher debt levels, and in a recent study of online gambling in Sweden, recent online casino gambling was associated with higher rates of problem gambling and indebtedness, compared to recent online sports betting and other online gambling, suggesting that online casino gambling may represent a particular health hazard.

Healthcare professionals would benefit from additional education in terms of treating online gambling, understanding the mechanics involved, and seeking effective measures to combat both the mental health and financial aspect of it.


Dr. Farrell is a psychologist, WebMD consultant, SAG/AFTRA member, author, interested in film, writing & health. Website: http://t.co/VT8mvcAvRz

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