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Getting to the roots of problem gambling

CAMH Discovers: News from CAMH Research and the Campbell Family Mental Health Research Institute
Scientists at Work

Getting to the roots of problem gambling

After losing $20 at a slot machine or in a poker game, what compels one person to walk away and another to continue, sometimes to the point of devastating losses?

This confounding question is the focus of a two-year study led by CAMH scientists Dr. Nigel Turner and Dr. Robert Mann. Dr. Turner is an expert in the psychology, technology and mathematics of gambling. He’s aiming to understand the driving factors – or social determinants – of problem gambling in Ontario.

“Everyone loves winning, but most people don’t become addicted to gambling. That’s why the social determinants of problem gambling are so important,” says Dr. Turner, Scientist in Social and Epidemiological Research at CAMH and a collaborator with CAMH’s Problem Gambling Institute of Ontario.

While gambling addiction was once labeled as an impulse control disorder, researchers now know that what leads a person to have a gambling addiction is more complex and has a lot of similarities to substance addictions. “We’re trying to find out all the factors that make some people more vulnerable to gambling addiction, as well as how these combine,” says Dr. Turner.

Dr. Nigel TurnerTo answer this, Dr. Turner and his team are reviewing existing literature to assess how strong the evidence is for each factor previously identified, with a particular eye to applicability of the findings to the Ontario context. The researchers are also gathering new data through the CAMH Monitor survey to investigate new potential factors, including possible links between traumatic brain injury and gambling addiction. The study is funded by the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long‑Term Care.

Problem gambling counselors, educators and policy makers have been involved throughout the study to ensure that the research responds to their information needs.

Social influences

What makes gambling unique as an addiction is that there is no substance involved, so “the thrill comes from your expectation,” says Dr. Turner. And social influences appear to play a key part.

“A lot of what motivates people is not so much the money you come home with, but the feeling of being a winner,” explains Dr. Turner. If you win at a table game or the bells and whistles call out that you’ve won at a slot machine, you become the centre of attention.

On the flip side, for people with social phobia or social anxiety, a casino environment can ease feelings of isolation, while slot machines do not require any social interaction. Casinos also are seen as a very safe environment – a factor that is especially attractive to older adults.

The role of mental illnesses

The study is showing “good evidence about the roles of depression and anxiety,” says Dr. Turner. People who are depressed or anxious may turn to gambling to avoid the stresses in their lives, and this is consistent with research that shows that “escape gamblers are much more plentiful than impulse gamblers,” he explains.

Faulty beliefs

Our ability to fool ourselves with erroneous beliefs is also a contributor. “Most people believe they are only one win away from making everything right,” says Dr. Turner. As the number of consecutive losses adds up, problem gamblers often believe they are getting closer to landing a big win.

Throughout his 20 years studying the area of problem gambling, Dr. Turner has even caught himself in the trap of faulty beliefs. During a game of roulette, after losing the modest amount of money he’d won, he found himself doubling his bet after his loss in hopes of winning the money back, a prevalent strategy in gambling known as the martingale strategy. “It amazed me that my brain was coming up with these erroneous beliefs, so I understand how these games can addict you and pull you into a vicious cycle,” he says.

“At their core, severe addictions have a vicious cycle that people get locked into. When it comes to gambling, people try to dig themselves out in the same way they got in,” he explains.

Dr. Turner and his team are targeting to complete this study by next spring. The impacts of Ontario’s changing gambling landscape, including the legalization of online gambling earlier this year and the push by casinos to introduce electronic versions of popular games, will be areas to continue to monitor in future.


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