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Compulsive Behaviors

How Passionate Are You About Gambling?

New research explores how obsessive passion can lead to problem gambling.

Do you enjoy gambling?

Whether it involves spending money on lottery tickets, making regular visits to local casinos, off-track betting, or playing the multitude of gambling-related websites currently available, there is no disputing that gambling is far easier than it ever was in the past. In the United States alone, the gambling industry contributes an estimated 137.5 billion dollars to the U.S. economy each year. As for the money gambling brings in around the world, the gross gambling yield (GGY) of the worldwide gambling market has been predicted to reach 495 billion U.S. dollars in 2019.

While the gambling industry provides jobs for hundreds of thousands of people around the world, it has a dark side as well. Even though most people who gamble rarely experience problems, a small, but significant, percentage of all gamblers develop dependency issues that can lead to serious financial and emotional problems. A bizarre example of that came to light recently when investigators announced that the audit of a Catholic school near Los Angeles determined that two nuns, both of whom had worked at the school for decades, had embezzled money to pay for gambling trips to Las Vegas. Though the exact sum was not disclosed, some sources put it as high as $500,000. Stories like this are hardly uncommon and cases of embezzlement, theft, and bankruptcy linked to gambling continue to occur.

Classified as an addiction disorder under the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), gambling disorder is described as a "persistent and recurrent problematic gambling behavior leading to clinically significant impairment or distress" which is typically diagnosed by various problem behaviours which can include:

  • Needing to gamble with increasing amounts of money in order to achieve the desired excitement
  • Being restless or irritable when trying to quit gambling
  • Having made repeated unsuccessful efforts to control, cut back, or stop gambling
  • Being preoccupied with gambling (e.g., having persistent thoughts of reliving past gambling experiences, handicapping or planning the next venture, thinking of ways to get money with which to gamble)
  • After losing money gambling, often returns another day to get even ("chasing" one's losses)
  • Lies to conceal the extent of involvement with gambling
  • Has jeopardized or lost a significant relationship, job, education or career opportunity because of gambling
  • Relies on others to provide money to relieve desperate financial situations caused by gambling

As for how many problem gamblers there are out there, that largely depends on how the definition used, how severe the symptoms are, and where they happen to live. For example, a 2002 study commissioned by the Nevada Department of Human Resources suggests that as many as 2.2 to 3.6 percent of Nevada residents over the age of 18 have some form of gambling problem, while studies of problem gamblers elsewhere typically report a prevalence rate of .5 to 3 percent.

But what makes gambling so addictive for some people? Along with the basic thrill that comes from winning, many gamblers view their love for gambling-related activities as being part of their very sense of personal identity. In a real sense, gambling has become their passion. Usually defined as "a strong inclination toward a self-defining activity that people love, find important, and in which they invest time and energy," passion plays an essential role in many human activities, whether it be passion for a given sport, passion for collecting, being a devoted fan of music, art, theatre, or even a favourite television show, etc. Passion can express itself in a wide variety of ways.

Recognizing the importance of passion in people's lives, psychologists have carried out numerous studies examining passion and how it can motivate people. And, in recent years, much of that research has focused on the dualistic model of passion proposed by psychologist Robert J. Vallerand.

According to this model, passion can be viewed as being either harmonious or obsessive. With harmonious passion, people choose to engage in the activity that they love, make it part of their basic identity, and integrate it into other aspects of their life as part of a harmonious whole. On the other hand, obsessive passion for an activity or interest can overwhelm the sense of self and cause people to pursue that activity at the cost of other, more important activities. A good indication of whether a passion is harmonious or obsessive is how defensive people get when describing their relationship with that activity. If someone feels the need to lie, or otherwise downplay, how much time, resources, and effort they spend on that activity, it suggests that their interest has become pathological rather than the life-affirming interest that a harmonious passion can bring.

But can the dualistic model of passion help explain pathological gambling? A new research study published in the journal Motivation Science suggests that it can. For their research, Benjamin J. I. Schellenberg of the University of Ottawa and Daniel S. Bailis of the University of Manitoba recruited 240 patrons from two Canadian casinos. Along with providing basic demographic information, the participants were asked to complete the Gambling Passion Scale to identify harmonious and obsessive aspects of gambling. Developed for use in previous research studies, the scale includes items such as "I couldn’t live without this gambling game” and "This gambling game allows me to live memorable experiences.” After completing the scale, participants then completed a simulated gambling exercise using the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT). All testing was done at tables set up in casino foyers.

The IGT was originally developed for use in cognitive research to simulate the real-life decisions made by gamblers. The test has each participant receiving an initial loan of $2,000 in imaginary money and being instructed to maximize their profits by making selections from four decks of cards. The first two decks, decks A and B, offer high rewards but even higher costs, resulting in a net loss over the course of the IGT, while the other two decks, decks C and D, offer smaller rewards but even smaller costs leading to net gains. Taking risks on the IGT by making more selections from decks A and B than from decks C and D is, therefore, a losing strategy that, although potentially leading to high gains and undo previous losses on any given trial, ultimately results in net losses over the course of the IGT. Each participant then makes make 100 selections and receives immediate feedback about the amount of money gained or lost after each trial. Since participants aren't told about the differences between decks, they must learn throughout the trials which choices to make. The IGT was completed on a laptop computer which could also be used to compute different measurements to determine decision making success (i.e., amount of money remaining, percentage of cards picked from disadvantageous decks, etc).

For the purpose of the research, Schellenberg and Bailis hypothesized that people high in obsessive passion would perform more poorly on the IGT than people high in harmonious passion. This would be due to their making relatively fewer selections from advantageous decks leading to poorer overall performance on the IGT. To study the kind of gambling decisions high and low obsessive passion scorers made over time, the authors also broke down the IGT results into five blocks of 20 trials each. This allowed them to compare performance between blocks to see how well participants learned from their previous performance.

As expected, participants scoring highly on obsessive passion were far more likely to select cards from decks A and B than low scorers. They also showed little real improvement over time and had far less money remaining at the end of the study. For low obsessive passion scores, however, their performance steadily improved across the five trial blocks as they learned more effective gambling strategies. These results held up even when other factors such as age, sex, or educational status were taken into account. As for harmonious gambling scores, there didn't appear to be any relationship with the different measures of IGT performance.

So, what do these results suggest? As Schellenberg and Bailis pointed out in their conclusions, people high in obsessive passion are much more likely to make poorer gambling decisions than low scorers, even when harmonious passion was taken into account. In other words, it's the type of passion that matters in gambling, not how much passion you might have. But it also raises another important question: is obsessive passion the same as addiction?

While not an addiction in its own right, obsessive passion is certainly a risk factor in developing a serious gambling addiction. As we can see from this research, people with an obsessive passion for gambling are prone to making poor decisions that can snowball into serious losses over time. Over time, the love for gambling that might characterize a passion disappears the need to keep gambling still remains. Whether this need is justified by the hope of "breaking even" with time or simply because the gambling has become a learned routine that compulsive gamblers can't shake, the outcome is the same. And this is when the gambling truly becomes pathological.

Along with looking at how obsessive passion can lead to pathological gambling problems, the findings from this study also show how obsessive passion can influence the kind of decisions gamblers may make. Whether due to being too caught up in the game, ruminating on losses, or simply being too distracted, obsessively passionate gamblers seem to have difficulty learning from their mistakes and developing better winning strategies.

Can research into obsessive passion help prevent problem gambling? At this point, it's too soon to tell. Still, this study does highlight the role that passion can play in motivating the way people behave in different settings, be it a casino or a fan conference. Whether the passion you feel is harmonious or obsessive is something that only you can decide.


Schellenberg, Benjamin J. I.,Bailis, Daniel S. When decisions are clouded by passion: A look at casino patrons. Motivation Science, Vol 4(3), Sep 2018, 274-279

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