How does compulsive gambling start?

Gambling doesn’t just happen; it builds up and sneaks up on you. Compulsive gambling can unhealthily be a part of you if enough attention is not paid to it. Its capabilities can never be overemphasized. Problem gambling can disrupt your life choices. How does betting for fun turn to an unhealthy craving that can only be fueled by more poor decisions? All there is to know is that nobody starts to become and gambling addict. It’s a process that sometimes takes decades to ‘bloom.’

The genesis

To successfully answer your question, you need first to trace the roots. Those who eventually end up becoming compulsive gamblers develop their addiction during childhood. But childhood isn’t the only way – it could be a family history of addiction, regular exposure to gambling activities, or trauma. Later on, we will look at the real ‘culprit’ in all of these.

Meanwhile, some people who’ve become gambling addicts talked about how they got hooked from their first experience. Most times, this addiction is usually preceded by a long period of conscious gambling – which is gambling for entertainment, with none accompanying significant negative consequences that occur once the behavior goes south.

The Root of Gambling

Back to the culprit or the root of gambling, the answer lies in the human brain. The brain plays a huge role in the development of compulsive gambling, and it almost mirrors the patterns of alcohol and drug abuse.

Interestingly, compulsive gambling was not recognized as an addiction until the late 80s. Before, it was seen as an unfathomable behavior – safe to say it was merely a compulsion, with a way to relieve anxiety, rather than a thirst for pleasure. APA (American Psychiatric Association) later defined compulsive gambling as an impulse control disorder. It was classified as DSM-5, which happened to be a scientific highlight in the medical world. This allowed psychologists to do qualitative research on the biological side of gambling addiction, rather than only understanding the symptoms.

APA’s decision to categorize problem gambling as an addiction was a result of intensive studies that were carried out in the realm of human psychology, genetics, and neuroscience. Scientific research shows that substance abuse and compulsive gambling were correlated in terms of human behavior while showing the symptoms. Through not understandable as it is in today’s world, thanks to technological advancements, substance abuse was considered a form of addiction due to the brain’s reaction to a stimulus. From there, researchers were able to fathom the determinant factors of the human brain’s activity from one point of the trigger to the next. Gambling didn’t fall within that category, but that was until the two disorders were compared comprehensively.

Dopamine and Compulsive gambling

For the brain to be involved in all of these, then a part of the brain has been deprogrammed and programmed to play that role. When it comes to all forms of addiction, the role of dopamine can never be overemphasized. Pleasure, memory, movement, and motivation are channeled through this hormone. So, most significant functions are connected to a good reward – the system built in the human brain. When you engage in any activity, individual neurons in the reward system produce dopamine.

We’ve talked about this in our previous posts. The dopamine produced by the reward system is associated with human happiness and feelings at large. In turn, it allows us to develop a different habit – both healthy and unhealthy. For instance, kissing someone will ignite the neurons built in the reward system to produce dopamine. The production of dopamine sends signals to our brain and tells it that the activity that led up to that release of dopamine is good and needs to be repeated.

But researchers found that the idea of winning when playing a game ignites the same response in problem gamblers. The same also applies to individuals to consistently take alcohol. When you subject your brain to repeated stimulations, the brain then spends too much time in what you’d call “Dopamine cloud,” and it gets worse till the brain gets desensitized to both the feeling and production of dopamine. How do you get the mind the function at this point? Well, for your brain to function effectively at this point, there has to be a high production of dopamine – this would cause the individual to seek a higher level of stimuli, frequently.

Researchers also found that betting more when losing and trying to outsmart the machines, such as the slots machines, getting a more significant win can be compared to someone reacting to the stimulus of cocaine and methamphetamine.

Lowered impulses

When there is no high level of stimulus, the brain’s level of required dopamine falls critically low, and individuals experience withdrawal – this drives them to seek more stimuli. Individuals struggling with substance abuse, these withdrawals are physical. From those suffering from compulsive gambling, these withdrawals are psychological.

The role of human genetics in gambling addiction

Studies have shown that compulsive gamblers are most times genetically wired to be significantly vulnerable from genetics alone. Those suffering from this form of addiction are found to have an inherently underactive reward system – meaning these addicts tend to seek a higher rewarding stimulus and search for reward aggressively. Compulsive gamblers had low levels of electrical activity in the prefrontal region of the brain while winning. This shows that lowered ability to control/suppress instincts and consciously assess the risk at hand. Finally, these individuals may already be at risk of developing gambling addiction tendencies via their brains’ genetic makeup.


For years, there have been misconceptions about what the real definition of addiction is. We need to redefine how we view it. However, discovering that gambling addiction can be compared to drug addiction as they tend to mirror themselves, gives it a new definition. So, what is compulsive gambling? It’s an act of overly pursuing a reward or stimulus repeatedly, despite serious repercussions or internal knowledge of the adverse outcomes.