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Gambling impacts the brain

Products are designed to keep people playing longer. When people gamble on harmful and addictive products their natural instincts can be hijacked and gambling can take control.

Man with exclamation points around him graphic

Some forms of gambling are more addictive than others, such as online slots and online casino games, but all carry a level of risk and can be harmful. Gambling harms are inflicted on people as a result of being exposed to harmful products.

  • The speed and frequency of making a bet increases the risk of an addiction forming. Some virtual games can be played every 2.5 seconds, much faster than their ‘in-person’ equivalents. The ability to place multiple bets on a single game or event provides more opportunities to gamble within a shorter period of time. This is linked to addiction and is the case with ‘in-play’ sports betting, casino games such as roulette and some electronic gaming machines.

  • This refers to the amount of money that can be bet on each wager. Many online games such as slots and casino games have unlimited stake sizes. Where combined with a high speed of play it is possible to risk large amounts of money in a very short period of time. There is evidence that higher stake limits are linked to higher rates of harm.  

  • This is common in online games, electronic gaming machines, and fruit machines. A bet may present as a ‘win’, but the amount won is lower than that staked – so it was actually a loss. For instance, a £1 ‘win’ on a slot machine when the stake is £2, is a £1 loss. These false wins come with celebratory sounds, lights and graphics, reinforcing the impact on the brain’s reward function, conditioning the brain to keep gambling.

  • This is where it appears that a ‘win’ was narrowly missed by the location of symbols on a reel, or on a scratch card, for example two out of three winning symbols are revealed, but the third isn’t. This may also be the case in games such as bingo where the winning number may just be ‘one number out’. This creates a feeling that a win was close and encourages someone to try again.

  • If you flip a coin and get heads nine times in a row, does this impact the likelihood that the tenth flip will land on tails? No. Gambling companies often play on misperceptions of randomness (sometimes called the ‘gambler's fallacy’). A common example is when casinos display the previous numbers the ball has landed on and if it was red or black, encouraging someone to read into the sequence to determine where the ball is likely to land next. This provides the fallacy of being able to guess the outcome of a random event which helps to convince a person gambling to continue.

What is the impact on the brain?

Gambling affects the brain’s natural survival and reward system, which is there to help us make choices and do the things that we need, are good for us, and help us survive.

Gambling can hijack these natural instincts and trigger a switch in the brain, pushing offline the area of the brain which thinks logically and deals with risks and everyday life. This tricks the brain into thinking you need to gamble to survive.

The two parts of the brain affected are:

  • The reward system

    The reward system, which focusses your mind on what you believe are positive outcomes. This is called the mesolimbic system.

  • Consequences and risks

    The part of the brain which thinks about consequences, risks and everyday life. This is called the frontal cortex.

Gambling or even thinking about gambling fills the reward system in the brain with a chemical called dopamine. This produces a feel-good factor and focusses the brain on the goal, in this case gambling. Dopamine is a natural chemical produced by our bodies. It also switches off part of the brain which thinks about risks and everyday things such as eating and drinking.

Everyday life can increasingly seem grey and uninteresting by comparison to gambling.

Over time, the brain gets used to the dopamine. It becomes necessary to gamble more to simply feel ok. Thinking can get more and more confused and it’s hard to tell winning from losing. Gambling companies have designed their products to trick the brain's reward system, with near misses and disguised losses, so that even if someone is losing, their brain reacts like it’s winning.

People become addicted and gamble more and more regardless of whether they win or lose.

The (brain’s) reward system produces a sensation of strong intense cravings and modern gambling has been designed so that there is very little time to stop and reflect on what you’re doing, so it’s exploiting your decision-making.
Matt Gaskell - Clinical Director, NHS Northern Gambling Service