Sunday, 22 June 2008

What causes compulsive gambling?

Compulsive gambling is generally seen as an addiction. There are a whole range of explanations of the causes.

One possible explanation can be derived from Skinner's concept of operant conditioning. In his experiments Skinner discovered that intermittent positive reinforcement produced the most long term or permanent results. The principle works as follows. A pigeon (for instance) is given a choice of several buttons to peck. If it pecks the correct button, it gets some food. If the reward happens every time, then once the reward stops so does the corresponding behaviour. However, when the reward happens some of the time but not always, then long-term behavioural changes occur.

Similar results have been demonstrated with people, and gambling fits remarkably well into this model. Translate this to a slot machine.

Scene 1: John's first attempt results in a win. Each successive spin produces another win. Then the winning stops. No more slot machine.

Scene 2: Joanne walks into a casino for the first time. She puts $100 into a 50c slot machine. 200 spins later, she hasn't had a single win. She is unlikely to play again.

Scene 3: Jennifer puts $20 into a slot machine. The first three spins are losers, but the fourth spin results in a $100 win. She wins again on the fifth spin, but loses a string of spins after this. As the money is about to run out, Jennifer wins $2500. She cashes in the winnings and goes home. But she will be back!

There are other ways to explain the causes of compulsive gambling. A popular theory is that of the addictive personality.

The concept of the addictive personality' is well established in the common psyche. How often do we hear the term 'addictive personality' bandied about? Many use the term to describe either themselves or others. But is there any scientific basis to this understanding of addiction?

According to the addictive personality theory, it is the individual that is prone to addiction rather than exposure to addictive substances or activities. A person becomes an addict because of certain in-born personality traits. In other words, the addictive personality is part of the person's genetic makeup. The object of the addiction is not important - the addictive personality will attach the addictive behaviour to heroin, alcohol, gambling, food, sex or computer games. By the same token, all smokers share an addictive personality.

This approach has received varied levels of support since its origin in the 1930s. A variety of psychological studies have been taken place over the years in attempts to identify personality traits responsible for addictive behaviour. In general, there has been very little in the way of empirical support for the theory. But it must be pointed out that many of those involved in the addiction rehabilitation business have identified a strong personality component in addiction through their own experience and observation.

Following his research in 1983 Alan R. Lang identified several ''significant personality factors'' that can contribute to addiction:

  • Impulsive behavior, difficulty in delaying gratification, an antisocial personality and a disposition toward sensation seeking.
  • A high value on nonconformity combined with a weak commitment to the goals for achievement valued by the society.
  • A sense of social alienation and a general tolerance for deviance.
  • A sense of heightened stress.

However, Lang concluded that ''there is no single, unique personality entity that is a necessary and sufficient condition for substance use."

An interesting study by Hermano Tavares of the Impulse Control Disorder Unit at the University of So Paulo in Brazil focussed on compulsive gamblers and alcoholics. Tavares found that while "both alcohol and gambling craving were directly related to clinical symptoms of depression and anxiety, and inversely related to length of abstinence. Our study suggests that people turn to either alcohol or gambling for different reasons."

Peele rejects the model of addiction dominated by personality citing "the radical transformations out of addiction for individuals who leave their 'burdensome' realities behind, as when they depart Vietnam" as evidence. While a person may become an addict under certain specific circumstances, this can change dramatically following a change in the environment. His view is that addiction is a social-psychological phenomenon in which personality plays a part.

Most experts on addiction do agree that there is a personality component to addiction, but the evidence for an addictive personality' or addictive genes is not there.

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