Gambling addiction is a serious and devastating problem for many people. Understanding this serious behavioral addiction requires replacing the myths with the facts.

Gambling addiction, or compulsive gambling, is a behavioral addiction (process addiction) characterized by a pathological obsession and compulsion to gamble. The addiction to gambling becomes increasingly problematic, causing financial, family, social and job problems, but the gambler continues and is unable to control or stop gambling, despite the negative consequences.

Compulsive gamblers are secretive and tend to be socially isolated, so there are many misconceptions and myths about this addiction. To have a proper understanding of this devastating disorder, it is necessary to separate the myths from the facts.

Myth 1: Gambling Isn’t Addictive

Fact: Gambling is designed to be addictive.

Gambling operates on a principle of psychology that is known to be highly addictive and compulsion-inducing. This principle is based on variable ratios of reinforcement (i.e., winning), and random ratios of reinforcement, together known as a variable-ratio reinforcement schedule (VRRS). Finding the most addictive form of a VRRS is a matter of considerable research. Most gambling machines are programmed to dole out wins on a precise schedule that is based on the most addictive form of a VRRS.

Myth 2: Gambling Is a Way to Make Money

Fact: The house always wins, especially when it comes to compulsive gamblers.

When driving past a casino it is easy to admire the lavish building. However, it is also easy to forget that the money to build that casino probably came from the losses of the people who gamble there.

One of the characteristics of pathological gambling is the persistent belief that the next bet will pay, despite repeatedly losing past the next bet. As such, the delusional belief that a stroke of luck is only a wager away is part of the pathological psychology of gambling addiction. The belief that gambling will pay off despite having lost considerable amounts of money is a driving factor of compulsive gambling.

Myth 3: If You Keep Playing, You Will Eventually Win Your Money Back

Fact: The longer someone remains in active gambling addiction, the greater the losses.

The irrational belief that the gambler will eventually hit it big and come out ahead is a significant driver of gambling addiction. To people who don’t have a gambling addiction, it is usually clear when enough is enough and they can walk away from their losses and get on with life. However, compulsive gamblers cannot do that; they keep coming back, driven by irrational beliefs of the big win.

However, gambling addiction is about much more than simply whether or not the person will win or lose. People who have a gambling addiction get a rush from gambling or a high, and this high is how they cope with negative feelings and life’s stressors. When they are gambling, the high they get from it makes them happy for a little while and distracts them from all their problems. It is known that pathological gamblers get this high whether they are winning or losing. The act of gambling is all they need.

Myth 4: If You Can Afford It, Compulsive Gambling Isn’t Really a Problem

Fact: Compulsive gambling is a symptom of underlying emotional and coping problems.

Financial loss is only one of many negative consequences of compulsive gambling. People who struggle with gambling addiction often end up having serious problems in their relationships and at their jobs, and may neglect life’s obligations. 

Pathological gambling is a progressive condition that tends to become increasingly consuming as time goes by. This fact is especially true in times of stress or low mood, as gambling becomes a way of coping. Eventually, almost all pathological gamblers suffer life-changing financial loss unless they get help in time.

Myth 5: Compulsive Gamblers Play Every Day

Fact: Gambling addiction can be continuous or episodic.

Many compulsive gamblers have dry periods without any betting. However, gambling addiction is chronic and progressive, so for many pathological gamblers, it eventually becomes a daily activity unless they seek and accept help.

An obsessive-compulsive preoccupation with gambling characterizes pathological gambling. Over time, these obsessive thoughts about betting become increasingly more invasive and anxiety-provoking. The only way to relieve that anxiety is by gambling, which is the compulsion that is coupled with the obsession.

 Similar to people who struggle with drug addiction, pathological gamblers experience tolerance, meaning that they require increasing amounts of the activity to satisfy their obsession and to get the same high. They also experience increasing amounts of withdrawal, which is the low mood and irritability they feel when they are not gambling. As these effects worsen, gambling usually increases as a result, and the addiction progresses.

Myth 6: Knowing a Game Well Increases Your Odds of Winning

Fact: Gambling games are designed to not have any aspect that will increase the odds of winning purely out of knowledge or skill.

Gambling games become absorbing for gamblers. Psychologists refer to “dark flow” as the state where the player becomes so immersed in a game that everything outside of it becomes irrelevant. This “dark flow” state is highly associated with addiction to the game and is designed to occur as people get to know a game by playing the same game for an extended period.

All gambling games are heavily favored for the house, which is why casino owners become so wealthy and the gamblers do not. If a game was not heavily in favor of the house, it would never become popular, because no casino, lottery or gambling website would want it. Whether or not someone knows a game well doesn’t change that fact.

Myth 7: There Are “Hot” and “Cold” Slot Machines

Fact: Slot machines are programmed to promote problematic play and win for the house.

Slot machines are a particularly dangerous form of gambling because they are programmed with the most addictive form of VRRS schedule. Additionally, they are programmed to operate on a principle known as loss disguised as a win(LDW). This effect happens when a player is given a “win” of credits with a spin, but fewer credits than the original wager. The psychological effect is that these frequent wins keep the player engaged, despite a net loss.

Both the single-line slots (the traditional slots) and the more modern multi-line slots are programmed to give LDW “wins” in a specific payback percentage, but it is always less than 100% and certainly not above 100%, meaning that the house always wins. There are no “hot” slot machines, only “cold” ones.

Myth 8: Gambling Is Only a Financial Problem

Fact: Gambling addiction causes problems that extend well beyond financial losses.

As their tolerance and withdrawal effects intensify, people who struggle with gambling addiction spend more and more time in their gambling activities, and in seeking money to support their addiction. 

Normal activities and responsibilities become neglected because of the amount of time required to satisfy the addiction. They begin missing work, and are frequently absent from home. Even sleep becomes affected as they pull “all-nighters” gambling. 

This time commitment can have effects beyond financial loss, such as:

  • Career-related consequences: being written up at work or losing a job
  • Relationship stress: financial stress, job loss and frequent absence are not conducive to healthy relationships, and can devastate families
  • Social isolation: friends and family are tired of being asked for loans and may be pushed away as the gambler becomes increasingly secretive
  • Arrest and criminal charges: for illegal activities used to finance gambling
  • Physical health problems: lack of sleep or self-care
  • Mental health problems: depressionanxiety and emotional distress

Myth 9: All Gamblers Engage in Criminal Behavior

Fact: Gamblers who seek and accept help can recover before they have to resort to criminal activity to finance their gambling.

If pathological gamblers continue with the addiction long enough, frequently the result is criminal behavior to finance the gambling habit. The most common gambling-related crimes are non-violent, financially motivated offenses:

  • Theft
  • Selling drugs
  • Forgery
  • Embezzlement

Typically, they will rationalize their crime as borrowing money. For example, if the person forges a check, takes money from the workplace or steals from a neighbor, they might rationalize the act by convincing themselves that they will return the money, usually after a big win at the casino.

However, not all crimes that compulsive gamblers are engaged in is financially motivated and non-violent. The three risky behaviors of substance abuse, gambling and crime are known to be closely associated and often co-occur. 

Some gambling crime statistics compiled by Georgia State University include:

  • About 50% of compulsive gamblers commit crimes
  • 73% of incarcerated felons are pathological or problem gamblers
  • Pathological gamblers are more than three times more likely to be arrested than non-problem gamblers, and more than seven times than non-gamblers
  • Only 5% of incarcerated pathological gamblers have ever gotten help for it 

Myth 10: Teens Don’t Gamble, Only Older People Gamble

Fact: Gambling is a bigger problem among teens than it is in adults.

Adolescents are even more vulnerable to problem gambling than adults. Even those who are underage for gambling report being able to buy lottery tickets and sports gambling cards. Additionally, online gambling sites are easy to access simply by lying about their age.

Researchers agree that gambling statistics and rates among teens around the world are higher than adult gambling rates. Some statistics from the Gambling Research Exchange Ontario include:

  • 0.2-12.5% of adolescents are problem gamblers
  • 10-15% of teens are at-risk gamblers
  • Up to 80% of teens have participated in gambling

Given the association between gambling, substance abuse and crime, addressing problem gambling in adolescents is an especially important matter.

Myth 11: Feeling Lucky Means You’re Going to Win

Fact: Distorted beliefs about luck are a key mechanism in developing gambling addiction.

Superstitious beliefs are prevalent in many games, including gambling. Pathological gamblers typically have two specific distorted beliefs:

  1. They are lucky or will become lucky
  2. They have some special gambling skill or knowledge

These superstitious, erroneous beliefs are an important part of the psychology of gambling addiction. The automatic thoughts are held by pathological gamblers, especially while they are gambling. These beliefs are encouraged by the randomness that is purposely programmed into gambling games, and play a central role in the development and persistence of addiction to gambling.

Other distorted beliefs that are often seen in compulsive gamblers are:

  • The “hot hand fallacy” is the belief that a positive result will predict further positive results.
  • The “I’m on a roll” idea is a belief that a person is on a winning streak, or will be soon.
  • The “gambler’s fallacy” is also known as the Monte Carlo fallacy or the fallacy of the maturity of chances. The erroneous belief that if something happened a lot in the past it will happen less in the future, or vice-versa

The fact is that odds and chances are mathematical probabilities and are not controlled by metaphysical powers of luck in any way. To make matters worse, many gambling machines are programmed to reduce or control the odds and chances of winning.

Myth 12: Problem Gambling Can’t Be Treated

Fact: Any person with a gambling addiction is capable of full and lasting recovery with the right help and the willingness to accept that help.

Stopping pathological gambling is not about having enough willpower. If willpower was enough, people would have stopped on their own long before their lives were devastated by their addiction. Rather, the key to successful recovery from gambling addiction lies in treatment that helps in identifying and addressing the underlying issues that are causing the compulsive behavior.

At The Recovery Village, we have the expertise and experience to help people affected by drug and alcohol addiction and co-occurring mental health disorders. We can build a specific treatment and recovery plan that addresses all the core issues behind the addiction. Please contact us for a free, confidential discussion.

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Editor – Camille Renzoni
Cami Renzoni is a creative writer and editor for The Recovery Village. As an advocate for behavioral health, Cami is certified in mental health first aid and encourages people who face substance use disorders to ask for the help they deserve. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Dr. Andrew Proulx, MD
Andrew Proulx holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry, an MD from Queen's University, and has completed post-graduate studies in medicine. He practiced as a primary care physician from 2001 to 2016 in general practice and in the ER. Read more

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Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.