Gambling involves placing a wager on an event with uncertain outcomes, and the stake, or amount of money placed at risk, is typically significant. The outcome of the gamble is determined by a combination of probability, skill, and societal and cultural influences.
Gamblers may place a bet on events occurring in nature, through games of chance such as dice or playing cards, or on the outcome of human endeavours such as sports events. The wagering activity can be as informal as a social group predicting the success or failure of an undertaking or as formal as a company making a large investment in unproven technologies with the hope that they will generate high demand in future.
People with a gambling problem often find it difficult to stop gambling, even when their financial situation is poor. This is partly because of the brain’s natural reward system which releases dopamine when a person wins. This feeling of euphoria can override any rational thinking and make it hard to resist the urge to gamble again, especially when the next win appears likely.
Many people gamble for non-financial reasons – such as because they enjoy thinking about what they might do with a jackpot, or because it helps them to relax or forget their problems. For some, gambling can become an addiction when they begin to lose control and engage in compulsive behaviours such as lying, stealing or spending excessively.
Some research suggests that people who have mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, are more likely to develop a gambling problem. The environment, coping styles, and beliefs of individuals could also influence whether they develop harmful gambling behaviour.
Until recently, the psychiatric community classified pathological gambling as an impulse-control disorder alongside other disorders such as kleptomania and pyromania. However, the American Psychiatric Association’s latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) moved gambling disorder to a new category on the basis that it shares features with substance use and other behavioral addictions.
A study of the prevalence and costs of gambling related harm has highlighted that there is a lack of robust, reliable data on this phenomenon. As a result, current estimates are often imprecise and can be misleading. The study by the University of York and the University of Edinburgh aims to improve this situation. It has been informed by a qualitative phase that involved focus groups and semi-structured interviews with 25 people who have experienced either direct or indirect harm from their own and/or someone else’s gambling.
The findings from the study suggest that there is a need to shift away from the focus on symptoms and towards a more holistic approach to measuring harm. This will allow the inclusion of a range of harms that can be attributed to gambling, and it will enable the measurement of these using standard epidemiological protocols used in public health. It will also help to identify a taxonomy of harms experienced by the person who gambles, their affected others and the wider community, which is consistent with social models of health.