Poker or Slots? Gambling Disorder Produces Unique Effects in Different Types of Gamblers

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Poker or Slots? Gambling Disorder Produces Unique Effects in Different Types of Gamblers

September 24, 2015 Mental Health
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All people diagnosed with the behavioral addiction called gambling disorder have symptoms that indicate serious problems related to several aspects of gambling-related activities. However, the impact of the disorder may not manifest in the same ways in all individuals. In a study published in 2014 in the journal Addiction, a team of Australian and U.S. researchers examined the decision-making processes in problem gamblers who participate in gambling activities that require a form of thinking called strategic thinking. They also compared these processes to the decision-making processes in problem gamblers who don’t participate in activities that require strategic thinking. 

Gambling Disorder

All behavioral addictions involve damaging changes in brain function and behavior that resemble those associated with an addiction to drugs or alcohol; however, these changes don’t stem from the excessive or habitual consumption of any substance. In addition to participation in gambling, commonplace activities that can lead to such a non-substance-related pattern of addiction include eating, having sex, surfing the Internet and shopping. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) refers to behavioral addictions as addictive disorders and designates these disorders as part of a more comprehensive category also reserved for various forms of substance abuse and substance addiction. Gambling disorder is the only addictive disorder with fully established APA criteria that doctors can use when diagnosing their patients.

Forms of Gambling

Everyone diagnosed with gambling disorder has a minimum number of telltale symptoms that commonly include such things as an impaired or absent ability to control gambling participation, a need to take part in ever-riskier gambling situations, frequent involvement in day-to-day thought processes that center on gambling, use of lying to hide gambling participation and a reliance on gambling to alleviate or avoid the impact of sadness or other unpleasant emotions. However, not all people with the disorder participate in the same types of gambling activities or experience their symptoms equally in all gambling situations.

Some of the gambling activities favored by affected individuals require strategic thinking, a term used to describe thinking that relies on advanced planning, the consideration of potential helpful and harmful outcomes and the ability to shift one’s approach in response to changing circumstances. Other affected individuals typically favor gambling activities that are less complicated and don’t require strategic thinking. Examples of strategic gambling activities include playing poker and betting on sporting events. Examples of non-strategic activities include playing slot machines and similarly designed electronic gambling games.

Are There Unique Effects?

In the study published in Addiction, researchers from the University of California at Irvine and Australia’s Monash University, Deakin University and University of Melbourne used several screening procedures to compare the brain responses of people with gambling disorder who gamble strategically to the brain responses of people with the disorder who prefer non-strategic gambling activities. A total of 39 adults with serious gambling problems took part in the project. Each of these individuals took a couple of tests designed to measure the ways in which they make decisions about gambling. The researchers also conducted testing designed to uncover the thought processes that influenced each participants’ decisions, including his or her motivations for making specific decisions and his or her responses to changing circumstances. For comparison’s sake, they also invited 41 adults unaffected by gambling disorder to take part in the study.

After comparing the outcomes for the strategic gamblers, the non-strategic gamblers and the people unaffected by gambling disorder, the researchers concluded that, when considered as a whole, people with gambling disorder make riskier decisions than people who don’t have serious gambling problems. They also identified two underlying reasons for this increased tendency toward risky decision-making: an overemphasis on the possible rewards of a given activity and the use of relatively inconsistent decision-making rules. However, when they dug further, the researchers found significant differences in the decision-making processes of problematic gamblers who take part in strategic activities and problematic gamblers who take part in non-strategic activities. Essentially, strategic gamblers with gambling disorder make decisions more or less as well as people without the disorder. However, non-strategic gamblers with gambling disorder have clear deficits in their decision-making abilities.

 

The study’s authors emphasize the fact that, overall, people with gambling disorder have an unusually difficult time making appropriate decisions when assessing unclear or risky situations. However, they also note that decision-making difficulties are not equally distributed among affected people who prefer strategic gambling activities and affected people who prefer non-strategic gambling activities.

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