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Compulsive Behaviors

Life of Vice: Does Problematic Gambling Lead to Criminality?

Research shows that gambling disorder may be an antecedent to criminal behavior.

Key points

  • Gambling disorder (GD) is a mental health issue characterized by excessive gambling and financial troubles.
  • Studies show that a significant portion of people with GD (20%) attempt suicide at some point in their lives.
  • Those with GD can also show mood disorders, psychotic disorders, and anxiety disorders.
  • Financial crimes, such as fraud and theft, are common offenses committed by problematic gamblers.
Source: DALL·E 3/Open AI
Problematic gambling is recognized as a disorder that can be debilitating for those afflicted.
Source: DALL·E 3/Open AI

On a comically long weekend drive—as if appearing out of nowhere—a garish, though ecstatic casino towering over the provincial highway vaguely resembling that of a Coney Island funhouse seized my focus. Upon entering, I was welcomed with gaudy carpets, flamboyant light fixtures, and LED-adorned slot machines. They echoed stereotypical melodies like a high-rolling children’s carnival game beckoning onlookers to relinquish handsome sums into the gold-plated hands of the $60 billion gambling industry.

It became increasingly apparent, between the expensive cocktails and dizzying entertainment passing me by, that a casino can quickly become a ground zero for addiction.

Gambling disorder (GD), as defined by the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, Text Revision (DSM-5-TR), is a non-substance-related disorder that is chiefly marked by an excessive preoccupation with gambling, a failure to cease such, and a resultantly financially precarious lifestyle. As reflected by the DSM-5-TR, gambling has a lifetime prevalence rate of between 0.4% and 1.0%, with men comprising most of those afflicted.

The APA further emphasizes ethnoracial group differences in the 12-month prevalence of problematic gambling, with African American individuals most impacted by this disorder. In a study of 2,099 individuals with GD, Håkansson and Karlsson (2020) found that around 20% of those afflicted attempted suicide at some point in their lives.

Moreover, significant differences were found between the suicidal and non-suicidal clusters in Håkansson and Karlsson’s study, with psychotic disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders, alcohol use, and drug use disorders being significantly (p < 0.001) more prevalent among suicidal individuals with GD. Of interest, such suicidal individuals were more likely to be female when compared to non-suicidal sufferers (36% vs. 19%) (p < 0.001).

Unsurprisingly, sensation-seeking and certain problematic personality constructs may be critical underlying factors in the persistence of problematic gambling. Coventry and Brown (1993) found, using the sensation-seeking scale (SSS) form V, that gamblers who are more likely to frequent race tracks and casinos scored higher on the SSS when contrasted with non-gamblers.

In a study conducted by Trombly and Zeigler-Hill (2016) of 572 undergraduate students, it was determined that dark triad personality traits, including narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism, were each related in some capacity to patterns of problematic gambling. Trombly and Zeigler-Hill also noted that, when controlling for these traits, psychopathy was the only construct that yielded a “unique association” with disordered gambling.

Various studies have found distinct links between the onset of problematic gambling patterns and the commission of various criminal behaviors. Turner et al. (2009), in a sample of 254 Canadian male inmates, noted that financial and income-related crimes were significantly higher among those who met certain characteristics for GD and its variations in different medical lexicons. Turner and associates also stated that around 65% of “severe problem gamblers” and 20% of “moderate problem gamblers” affirmed that their criminal behavior was a result of gambling behaviors and the respective debt that they accumulated.

Among non-incarcerated individuals with GD, Meyer and Stadler (1999) determined that problematic gambling behavior may be a key criminogenic factor when using causal analysis to gauge differences between those affiliated with problematic gambling in inpatient and outpatient treatment and control groups. Though disordered gambling seldom explains criminal behavior as a single variable, such behaviors may be a risk factor for offending.

Delineating between “high and low-frequency gamblers” and “pathological gamblers in treatment,” Meyer and Stadler noted considerable differences between these two groups, with crimes relating to fraud (37.7% vs. 5.5%), embezzlement (21.7% vs. 1.1%), theft from work (23.3% vs. 2.2%), and theft from family (23.3% vs. 16.1%) being most prevalent among the “problematic” gamblers. Curiously, there were similar degrees of frequency between the two groups as it related to the consumption of both “hard” (4.3% vs. 4.2%) and “soft” (18.0% vs. 16.9%) drugs.

Concerning the prevalence of disordered gambling among violent offenders, Widinghof et al. (2018) highlighted that 16% of their Swedish male violent offender sample met the DSM-IV diagnostic criteria for GD. Curiously, no significant differences were found between the disordered gambling and non-disordered gambling groups of violent offenders concerning the commission of sexual offenses, property offenses, or fraud.

However, between-group significant differences were noted in offenses related to drugs and traffic violations among offenders, with GD demonstrating a higher prevalence of these offenses. Concerning crime and GD among young adults, Mestre-Bach et al. (2021) found that 36.0% of their sample of 808 young adults (ages 18-30 years) with gambling disorder had committed some form of a criminal act related to their problematic gambling. The authors also emphasized that both being of a young age and remaining unemployed were strong predictors of criminal behavior among their sample. Furthermore, a greater severity of GD was also positively associated with the onset of offending.


Håkansson, A., & Karlsson, A. (2020). Suicide Attempt in Patients With Gambling Disorder-Associations With Comorbidity Including Substance Use Disorders. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 11, 593533.

Meyer, G., & Stadler, M. A. (1999). Criminal behavior associated with pathological gambling. Journal of Gambling Studies, 15(1), 29-43.

Trombly, D. R., & Zeigler-Hill, V. (2017). The Dark Triad and disordered gambling. Current Psychology, 36, 740-746.

Turner, N. E., Preston, D. L., Saunders, C., McAvoy, S., & Jain, U. (2009). The relationship of problem gambling to criminal behavior in a sample of Canadian male federal offenders. Journal of Gambling Studies, 25, 153-169.

Mestre-Bach, G., Granero, R., Vintró-Alcaraz, C., Juvé-Segura, G., Marimon-Escudero, M., Rivas-Pérez, S., ... & Jiménez-Murcia, S. (2021). Youth and gambling disorder: What about criminal behavior?. Addictive Behaviors, 113, 106684.

Coventry, K. R., & Brown, R. I. F. (1993). Sensation seeking, gambling and gambling addictions. Addiction, 88(4), 541-554.

American Psychiatric Association (Ed.). (2022). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5-TR (Fifth edition, text revision). American Psychiatric Association Publishing.

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