Inside the Criminal Mind

Understanding the dark side of human conduct

"Compulsive" Gambling: Mental Disorder or Irresponsible Choice?

Addiction is overused as a concept especially applied to gambling

"Compulsive" Gambling: Mental Disorder or Irresponsible Choices?

A man leaves his office telling his supervisor he must attend to a family matter. In reality, he spends the afternoon at the race track. This is not the first time. At every opportunity, he plays games of chance -- purchasing lottery tickets, betting on outcomes of sports events, wagering at cards, and indulging in internet gambling schemes. Gradually, gambling becomes a primary focus of his waking hours. Increasingly, he lies regarding his activities and about disappearing sums of money.

His behavior might seem indicative of an obsessive-compulsive disorder that is spiraling out of control with potential to jeopardize his family, his employment and ruin his future.

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Whether this behavior truly constitutes a mental illness bears close scrutiny. Many people gamble occasionally as a form of entertainment. It injects a bit of excitement into their lives. They know the odds are against them and are willing to take a small risk. Their gambling goes no further. They have no desire or need to deceive others, and no damage is done. Contrast this with the person who seeks greater and greater excitement, perpetually expecting a large return for very little or no effort.

Criminal thinking processes are operative in the individual who makes such choices. These include:

  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Seeking large rewards for minimal effort
  • Superoptimism in counting on an eventual big score
  • Shutting off from awareness the knowledge of consequences
  • Lying (by omission and commission) to others who might hold them accountable
  • Betrayal of trust (e.g., family members, work colleagues).

When held accountable, the so-called "compulsive" gambler may claim he has become "addicted." This means that he has immersed himself so deeply that quitting is hard to do. Yet, just as poeple struggle to give up many bad habits once these habits have cost them dearly, the "addicted" gambler can do the same. Some require help while others do it by their own persistent effort.

Every time a wager is made, it involves the exercise of choice. It may take a calamity to motivate him, but the frequent gambler can make a series of choices to abstain and live a responsible life.

Stanton Samenow, Ph.D.,is a clinical psychologist practicing in Alexandria, Virginia and author of Inside the Criminal Mind.

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