Psychologists believe that gambling is an excellent ‘distractor task’. What we mean is that playing slot machines, roulette or poker, has the capacity to engage much of a gambler’s individual active attention because of the cognitive and motor activity that is needed. One positive benefit of gambling may be a temporarily higher pain threshold. Research studies have shown that cognitive and attentional distraction has the capacity to block the perception of pain. The reasoning behind this is that distractor tasks (such as gambling and videogame playing) consume some degree of the attentional capacity that would otherwise be devoted to pain perception. Although gambling has never been tested in this way experimentally, research into videogame playing and pain perception has shown that those who play videogames after treatment for things like chemotherapy need significantly less painkillers than those who don’t play videogames. However, one of the problems with this type of “snapshot” research is that there has been no long-term follow-up and it is unclear whether players eventually tire of such games. Therefore other factors need to be explored such as novelty of the activity, game preference, and relative level of challenge.
There has also been an increasing amount of research showing that gamblers who play for long periods of time can enter ‘dissociative states’ of mind. Dissociation is a form of altered state of consciousness. These behaviours lie on a continuum and range from losing track of time, feeling like your someone else, blacking out, not recalling how you got somewhere or what you did, and being in a trance like state. In its most extreme form it can include multi-personality disorders.
Dissociation also needs to be differentiated from distraction although it could be the case that they are at opposite ends of the same continuum. For example, a person may use gambling as a distracting activity but over time may progress into a dissociative one. Distraction usually involves a person's attention being pulled somewhere other than where he or she wants it to go although some people may deliberately engage in some activities (like drinking alcohol, gambling, smoking etc.) as a way of shifting their thoughts away from something they do not want to think about. Distraction can be born out of boredom, lack of interest, melancholy and creativity. More generally it can be viewed as a low-level state of avoidance. It may also be a symptom of depressive or mood disorders and high levels of stress. On the whole, losing track of time because of distraction is normal when you are having fun. Blacking or going into a dissociative trance like state is not!
There is also the possibility that the medium of gambling influences distraction capacity. For instance, some of my own research has suggested that the Internet may provide immersive and dissociative feelings for its users and may facilitate feelings of escape. I also believe that the anonymity of the Internet allows users to privately engage in activities like gambling without the fear of stigma. The anonymity may also provide the gambler with a greater sense of perceived control over the content, tone, and nature of the online experience.
Anonymity can also increase feelings of psychological comfort since there is a decreased ability to look for, and thus detect, signs of insincerity, disapproval, or judgement in facial expression, as would be typical in face-to-face interactions. For activities such as gambling, this may be a positive benefit particularly when losing as no-one can actually see your face. However, one of the consequences of technology and the Internet has been to reduce the fundamentally social nature of gambling to an activity that in many cases is asocial. Most problem gamblers report that at the height of their problem gambling, it is a solitary activity. Gambling in a social setting has the potential to provide a kind of “safety net” for over-spenders as friends will often notice excessive and ‘out of character’ behaviour. This is lost when gambling alone on the Internet.