People diagnosed with gambling disorder are much more likely to prefer gambling situations that provide large financial rewards in return for a heightened level of risk, a new study has found. People affected by a form of behavioral addiction called gambling disorder have a noted tendency to bet their money in increasingly risky gambling situations. However, until now, no one has really known what motivates this increasing exposure to risk. In a recent study in the journal Addictive Behaviors, a team of American and Belgian researchers used a screening tool called the Iowa Gambling Task to explore the reasons people with gambling disorder prefer financially dangerous gambling situations. These researchers concluded that affected individuals seem to be motivated by a heightened susceptibility to the goal of financial gain from gambling activities.
Gambling disorder is the only non-substance-related form of addiction with a definition approved by the American Psychiatric Association, a group that sets the standard for diagnosing addiction in the U.S. In addition to involvement in increasingly risky patterns of gambling, symptoms that can lead to a diagnosis of the disorder include experiencing repeated failures when trying to rein in gambling involvement, having a fixation with gambling that persists outside of gambling situations, using gambling to avoid dealing with personal or emotional difficulties, establishing gambling as a major life priority, taking steps to hide or downplay gambling involvement and relying on others to support gambling participation. Since May 2013, the American Psychiatric Association has included gambling disorder in a category of conditions, called addictive disorders, set aside for serious, addiction-related problems that don’t have a direct connection to the overconsumption of drugs, medications or alcohol. Addiction specialists and other health professionals commonly refer to addictive disorders as process addictions or behavioral addictions. People with addictive disorders/process addictions/behavioral addictions experience many of the damaging changes in brain function and daily behavior that signify the presence of substance addiction.
The Iowa Gambling Task
The Iowa Gambling Task uses life-like conditions to determine how a person will react to the uncertainty associated with participating in gambling activities. The test also determines how sensitive a person is to the relative risks and rewards of specific gambling situations. During the Iowa Gambling Task, each participant receives a set amount of money to bet on a turn-by-turn card game. Every turn in the game results in either increased winnings or increased losses, and a participant can either place small bets that come with relatively small rewards or place big bets that come with relatively big rewards. As a rule, a person who continues to place large bets after losing substantial amounts of money during the test has heightened chances of qualifying for a gambling disorder diagnosis.
Financial Gain as a Motivator
In the study scheduled for publication in Addictive Behaviors, researchers from the University of Southern California and Belgium’s Free University of Brussels gave the Iowa Gambling Task to 20 people diagnosed with gambling disorder as well as to a comparison group of 20 people unaffected by gambling problems. After administering the test, they broke the results down into three categories that describe the mental processes behind gambling choices. These categories are the relative importance given to winning and losing during gambling, the relative emphasis placed on recent vs. past gambling experiences and the relative ability to consistently learn from gambling outcomes and make appropriate responses. The researchers found that, while gambling, people diagnosed with gambling disorder don’t differ from their unaffected counterparts in terms of either the emphasis placed on recent vs. past gambling experiences or the ability to consistently learn from and respond to gambling outcomes. However, the researchers also found that people diagnosed with gambling disorder are significantly more likely to prefer gambling situations that provide large financial rewards in return for a heightened level of risk. They concluded that gambling disorder is based, in part, on an unusual level of susceptibility to the potential monetary benefits of gambling. The study’s authors believe that gambling disorder-affected individuals’ heightened susceptibility to the idea of benefitting financially from gambling may indicate the presence of underlying changes in the part of the brain responsible for making risk/reward assessments for all kinds of activities. At the same time, they believe that their findings do not support another proposed brain mechanism for gambling disorder, namely a decreased ability to take in and comprehend the importance of changes in gambling situations over time.