The Psychology of Gambling
© 2012 by Nenah Sylver, PhD
The peace and beauty of New York state's Hudson Valley, where I used to live, was always in danger of dwindling fast. Even more damaging than a rapidly escalating population—bringing more houses, stores, traffic, pollution and noise—was the onslaught of gambling casinos. Seething, emotional debates were many and long about whether casinos should be allowed in the region. The companies that wanted to build the casinos of course claimed how many benefits they were providing, while residents argued that the casinos would hurt the area economically and ecologically.
Since those furious debates of 2004, no new casinos have been built in or near Kingston. However, the multi-
There are many aspects of gambling. This essay is anti-
Casinos create pragmatic problems. One valid concern is the environmental impact of more people using already scarce water resources, and the danger of groundwater pollution from increased sewage and pesticide runoff of additional lawns and golf courses.
Economic improvement is questionable: although the "pro" faction claims additional income will be brought to the area, these monies will stay in the casinos, since the gamblers—here for one thing only—are unlikely to venture outside and purchase goods from local merchants. Few well-
The Native Americans, on whose land the casinos would be built (because their special sovereign status exempts them from having to pay the usual taxes), are themselves divided. To some, casinos offer the easiest opportunity to raise themselves out of poverty. To others, gambling opposes the spiritual foundation of Native American traditions. It cannot be argued that Native Americans, historically subjugated and colonized by white Europeans, have a lot of economic catching up to do—and Native-
Psychological Issues of Gambling -
They're More Profound Than You Think
Aside from the compelling economic and environmental data against casinos, consider the psychological fallout of gambling. Gambling is not simply another lifestyle, or mode of entertainment like movies or surfing. According to a 1999 report from the nine-
Someone whose repeated gambling creates problems is called a compulsive gambler. Casinos can't exist without compulsive gamblers, points out economics professor Earl Grinols of the University of Illinois. Although compulsive gamblers comprise only 4 percent of the adult population, they can create as much as 52 percent of a casino’s profits. The compulsion has a pattern: Even though the gambler knows that the odds against winning are astronomical, s/he gambles in vain, trying to fulfill unrealistic daydreams of acquiring more and better possessions and the admiration of more and better friends—and thus achieving greater social status. Desperate people, overwhelmed with financial hardship and emotional strife, risk losing their life savings, homes, and even friends and family due to gambling. The National Opinion Research Center recently reported that gambling correlates to statistically significant increases in divorce, domestic violence, child abuse, and suicide. Gambling has become such a common social and economic problem that Gamblers Anonymous (modeled after the famous Alcoholics Anonymous) was created to provide support groups to help gamblers quit.
What induces people to gamble? "Nervousness, irritability, frustration, indecision and a continued breakdown in personal relationships," says Gamblers Anonymous. Compulsive gamblers are recognized as addicts by the health care profession as well as anti-
Comparing alcoholism to compulsive gambling can be useful. But it’s important to precisely define addiction and examine how people become addicts. An addiction is a repeated unhealthy behavior that is a substitution or cover for feelings or a life situation with which the person cannot cope. Addictions are unhealthy because they create additional problems that can be as severe as those they were designed to mask. "I started smoking to relieve the stress of my marriage." "Drugs seemed like such an easy escape from my problems." "I began to overeat out of boredom." "The more people I get into bed and score with, the more control I feel I have over my life. It makes me feel powerful and desirable." "Making lots of money is the only way to earn respect," and so on.
Like those who are addicted to drugs, food, sex, money, prestige, or various forms of power-
Gambling addicts have unbearably high levels of stress. Stress tolerance can be defined as the ability of a person to handle input from either external or internal sources without becoming depleted or losing the ability to efficiently function. If the person becomes less able to function, the input is too harsh. People have different ways of coping with stress and managing their emotions when, say, dealing with the breakup of a relationship or the loss of a job. One person might hike in the woods or meditate. Another might drink for a week or visit a casino. But while the former coping mechanisms are restorative, drinking and gambling are not. They usually make problems worse.
Given time and proper support, the addict may acknowledge that s/he has a deep-
But is every gambler emotionally impaired? Let us assume that someone is visiting a casino for "fun" and presumably innocent excitement, rather than from the need to escape emotional problems. The psychological harm still exists: Think about why people like the excitement of gambling. Gambling is exciting because very few people can win. The more you risk, and the greater the odds against winning, the more exciting the game becomes.
The need for excitement in itself is not a bad thing. Humans are hard-
The heightened feeling of self-
Winning makes gamblers finally feel good about themselves. Yet how genuine or stable can one’s self-
Now let us assume that someone who is financially comfortable and psychologically secure is at the casino. (This means that neither their pocketbook nor self-
This is why someone on the "win" side of a "win/lose" paradigm is losing—though it might not seem obvious at the time. The win/lose paradigm of gambling keeps people trapped in a cycle of socially and legally sanctioned conquest.
"It is important…that the member see compulsive gambling in its true light, as an emotional illness," reads the website of Gam-
The gambling frenzy makes it easy to forget that we were all created by the same universal source, that what affects one affects us all. Until we all have the sustenance for a truly fulfilling life—love, respect, caring relationships, meaningful work, nourishing food, sound shelter, and ready access to an unpolluted natural world—casinos will exist. Casinos will prey upon people’s insecurities of not being good enough, their fears (real or perceived) of not having enough, their need to escape from pain, and—as long as they cannot handle life’s sometimes bitter challenges—their addiction to substitute excitement.
Is this the energy and mindset that we want in our communities? Are these principles consonant with Native American spiritual teachings—or with any other genuine spiritual teachings, for that matter? Is this the model of interacting that will truly enrich our lives?
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International Service Office
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National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling
100 Maryland Avenue NE, Room 311
Washington, DC 20002