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Gambling Addiction

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Gambling Addiction

Gambling addiction refers to when someone has little to no control in stopping themselves from gambling. This article will discuss the behavioral and cognitive explanations for gambling.

How does the learning theory explain gambling addiction?

Vicarious reinforcement refers to when a person doesn’t experience direct reinforcement; they just observe it. This is what often happens with gambling. Someone observes other people winning when gambling, either in-person or through the media, and this reinforces their gambling behaviour.

Operant conditioning refers to the direct positive or negative reinforcement that a person receives. In positive reinforcement, positive outcomes like wins reinforce the gambling behaviour. In negative reinforcement, people use gambling as an escape from stressful situations.

Partial reinforcement or variable reinforcement is when only some behaviour is rewarded. For example in gambling, a person can’t win every time they place a bet. This produces the most persistent learning effect: if gambling behaviour pays off every so often, the gambler takes this as a sign that eventually they will win. This is what keeps them going.

Cue reactivity helps us understand why an addiction such as gambling can be reinstalled and maintained after relapse. This is because secondary reinforcers or cues trigger cravings. If someone is addicted to slot machines at casinos, the high seated chairs and bright lights associated with gambling can trigger cravings as they remind the addict of the pleasure they get from slot machines.

Gambling addiction Poker StudySmarterA game of poker, Pixabay.

What is cognitive theory and how can it explain gambling addiction?

Cognitive theory states that behaviour results from internal mental processes, i.e. our thoughts. This explains gambling as a series of faulty thinking patterns. Various faulty patterns could contribute to gambling, from faulty perceptions of chance, to selective recall.

Expectancy theory is when a gambler expects positive outcomes from their gambling despite previous mixed experiences. This leads them to gamble more.

Cognitive theory states that cognitive biases also influence gambling. These include skill and judgment -when an addict thinks they have more control over their gambling than they do- and personal traits and rituals -when someone thinks that engaging in particular rituals or having certain traits will increase their chances of winning-.

Other cognitive biases include selective recall -a gambler only remembers positive gambling experiences- and faulty perceptions -the gambler has warped views on the operation of chance, meaning they think they have a higher chance of winning-.

Research by Griffiths (1994) showed that addicted gamblers displayed these characteristics.

Quitting gambling can be difficult, especially if the addict believes they can’t do it. This is known as self-efficacy. If an addict has high self-efficacy they are more likely to successfully abstain from gambling as they believe they can do it.

Gambling addiction - Key takeaways

  • Learning theory explains gambling addiction as a behaviour that is learned.
  • Vicarious reinforcement, direct reinforcement, partial reinforcement, and variable reinforcement all reinforce gambling.
  • Partial reinforcement and variable reinforcement can explain why people remain addicted to gambling even though they are not always rewarded.
  • Cue reactivity refers to the cues around us which could remind someone of gambling such as bright lights or coins, leading to gambling cravings.
  • Cognitive theory states that faulty thinking processes cause gambling addiction.
  • Expectancy theory refers to a gambler’s expectation that the benefits of gambling will outweigh the costs.
  • Cognitive biases related to skill judgment, ritual behaviours, personal traits, selective recall, and faulty perceptions all influence gambling addiction.

Frequently Asked Questions about Gambling Addiction

Psychologists disagree about the cause of addiction. Some researchers think that addiction is learnt through reinforcement, others believe that it is inherited, and some think it is caused by faulty thought processes.

Learning theory explains gambling through reinforcement. It states that gambling is reinforced through the positive outcomes of winning and the negative reinforcement of avoiding stress. Partial and variable reinforcement also explain gambling by stating that although the gambler won’t win every time, they learn that they will eventually win, leading them to keep gambling.

Yes, according to the DSM-5, gambling disorder (gambling addiction or compulsive gambling) is a mental illness.

There is no one personality type for gamblers. Some personality traits common to gamblers include controllingness, narcissism, and persistency. 

You should consult with a professional. Different treatments may work better for some than others but learning theory advises aversion therapy. In contrast, cognitive theory uses cognitive behavioural therapy to treat addiction.

Final Gambling Addiction Quiz

Question

What is learning theory?

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This approach explains behaviour through positive and negative reinforcement, stating that people learn through rewards and punishments.

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What is vicarious reinforcement?

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This is when someone observes another person experiencing reinforcement. E.g., seeing someone win a large sum of money after gambling on a game show is an example of positive vicarious reinforcement. 


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What are direct positive and negative reinforcement?


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This is when a person experiences reinforcement directly. If positive, the person gains something. If negative, the person gets to avoid an unpleasant stimulus.

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What is partial and variable reinforcement?


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Partial reinforcement is when only some behaviour is rewarded. Variable reinforcement produces the most persistent learning and is when behaviour is only rewarded sometimes.

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What is cue-reactivity? 


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Cue-reactivity is when a person is prompted by cues in the environment to engage in their addiction. For example, a gambling addict seeing a game show on TV may make them want to gamble.

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Give an example of cue-reactivity. 


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A gambling addict sees a game of cards and instantly wants to gamble.

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Give an example of variable reinforcement.


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Someone playing slot machines won’t win every time they place a bet but they will every so often. This means that their gambling behaviour is variably reinforced.

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Which of these is NOT a cognitive bias of gambling?


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 Selective attention

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What is expectancy theory? 


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The idea that the most important factor influencing gambling addiction is someone’s expectations of gambling’s outcomes.

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Give an example of skill and judgement cognitive biases. 


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A gambler might believe that they are particularly skilled at picking out numbers for the lottery.

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Give an example of personal traits/ritual behaviours.


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A gambler might rub a certain piece of jewellery before placing a bet for ‘good luck.’

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_______ reinforcement is when someone watches someone experience reinforcement


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Vicarious

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____ reactivity is when someone sees something in their environment which reminds them of their addiction. 

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Cue

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 _______ reinforcement is when a behaviour isn’t reinforced all the time 


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Variable

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 How does the cognitive theory explain gambling?


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Cognitive theory explains gambling behaviour through faulty thinking patterns such as personality traits and ritual behaviours.

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