Why Do You Gamble?
A brief look at gambling motivation
Posted August 26, 2015 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
In the three decades that I have been studying gambling, the question that I am most asked is "Why do people gamble?" and variations on it, such as "Why do people gamble when most people consistently lose?" All surveys of gambling have shown that there are a broad range motivational factors that are central to gambling, and that attitudes towards gambling are positively related to availability and cultural acceptability. However, this perspective fails to take into account many key findings and observations in gambling research. Surveys have also shown that not everyone gambles and some people gamble more than others (e.g., professional gamblers, problem gamblers).
Research has consistently shown that people often gamble for reasons other than broad social and economic reasons. These other motivations may vary according to personal characteristics of the gambler and the type of gambling activity. Additionally, broad social and economic theories fail to explain why certain gambling activities are more popular or 'addictive' than others.
Variations in gambling preferences are thought to result from both differences in accessibility and motivation. Older people tend to choose activities that minimise the need for complex decision-making or concentration (e.g., bingo, slot machines), whereas gender differences have been attributed to a number of factors, including variations in sex-role socialisation, cultural differences and theories of motivation.
Stereotypically, women tend to prefer chance-based games and men tend to prefer skill-based games. Even in some games that are predominantly chance-based, men attempt to impose some level of skill. For instance, poker – which people regard as skill-based – has a massive amount of chance involved. Similarly, men often, in their own minds, change playing a slot machine from a chance-based event into a more skill-based activity via cognitive processes such as the illusion of control. The other factor to consider is that (generally speaking) women don’t like it when other people see them losing. On a slot machine, no-one sees the player is losing so it’s very often a very guilt-free, private experience. For men, on the other hand, even when they lose big, there’s a machismo attached to it that says: “Yes, I’ve lost £500, but I can afford it.”
Variations in motivation are also frequently observed among people who participate in the same gambling activity. For example, slot machine players may gamble to win money, for enjoyment and excitement, to socialise and to escape negative feelings. Some people gamble for one reason only, whereas others gamble for a variety of reasons. A further complexity is that people's motivations for gambling have a strong temporal dimension; that is, they do not remain stable over time. As people progress from social to regular and finally to excessive gambling, there are often significant changes in their reasons for gambling. Whereas a person might have initially gambled to obtain enjoyment, excitement and socialisation, the progression to problem gambling is almost always accompanied by an increased preoccupation with winning money and chasing losses.
Gambling is clearly a multifaceted rather than unitary phenomenon. Consequently, many factors may come into play in various ways and at different levels of analysis (e.g., biological, social or psychological). Theories may be complementary rather than mutually exclusive, which suggests that limitations of individual theories might be overcome through the combination of ideas from different perspectives. This has often been discussed before in terms of recommendations for an eclectic approach to gambling or a distinction between proximal and distal influences upon gambling. However, for the most part, such discussions have been descriptive rather than analytical, and so far, few attempts have been made to explain why an adherence to singular perspectives is untenable.
Gambling is one of those activities where people effectively can get something for nothing, which is why some people will take risks. The attraction of a lottery, for example, is that, for a very small stake, the individual can have a life-changing experience (and things are further complicated by the fact that most lottery players don’t see the activity as gambling). People who enjoy playing roulette or betting on a football match enjoy the betting or gaming experience itself. In short, each gambling activity has its own unique psychology (although there are undoubtedly overlaps).
While gamblers may seem to be primarily driven by the profit motive, the psychological evidence is overwhelming that other desires affect gambling actions. Put simply, for most gamblers, our actions contradict the desire to maximize profits. Whilst I am no Freudian, there appear to be a whole range of unconscious factors at play in gambling. For instance, if players make a successful bluff during a card game, it’s human nature to want to let people know how smart they are. The golden rule in poker is never to give anything away but the human psyche works in such a way that we usually want to show off once in a while. Our psychological make-up also means that we let pride get in the way of minimizing losses. There are always games that should have been avoided but players end up staying in them long after they knew it was a mistake. None of us like to lose to who we think are weaker players, or admit that the game was too hard. How many times does a player continue playing because they want to try and get the better of a great player or show off because there is someone they are trying to impress? Although it’s a cliché, pride before a fall is commonplace. These short-term psychological satisfactions will almost always have a negative impact on long-term profits.
Because there are many non-financial types of rewards from many different sources while gambling, some people view losses as the price of entry. To these players (and I include myself as one of them), winning may be a bonus. However, most of us don’t like losing – and we especially don’t like persistent losing, regardless of whether there are other types of reinforcement. In the cold light of day, we are all rational human beings. In the height of action, rationality often goes out the window. I’ve done it myself at the roulette table and standing in front of a slot machine. While gambling I have felt omnipotent. It is only after I walk away penniless that it's clear the non-financial rewards are short-term and not worth it.
Understanding our own psychological motives is clearly important while gambling. Most players know the strategies they should be adopting but fail to apply them in real gambling situations. Players do not lack the information. It is far more profitable to learn why we don’t apply the lessons we have already learned, then ensure that we apply them. Until we understand and control our own motives — including the unconscious ones — we cannot possibly play to our best ability.
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