Why Do People Gamble Compulsively?

It’s easy to think that it’s difficult for those of us who don’t gamble to get into the mindset of those who do. We envision smoke-filled rooms where fortunes can be won or lost the moment a dealer needs to move his wrist. To most of us that seems terribly strange. But in reality, we all bet in everyday situations where the stakes are much higher than the card turn.

We could look for a new job somewhere, move house, or run a red light. We delude ourselves that these are rational choices, but in many ways we are subject to the vagaries of fate that are much more complicated than those of a simple game of chance like poker or bingo. Our new job could make us work with people we don’t like. We could be out of reach in a new environment. Perhaps the reasonable director of the interview turns out to be an ogre to work for. The company could go bankrupt within a few weeks of our joining. None of these things are quantifiable, and yet they can have far more damaging effects on our lives than simply dropping $ 50 on a hand of cards.

Those we define as “gamblers” are typically those who play a game of quantifiable odds for a given outcome. We delude ourselves by saying that our own lives do not contain great game elements.

Where the momentum of the game in this scenario becomes problematic is that goals that seem so clear at first can quickly overcome your situation. You enter a game with $ 200 and before you know it, you can drop $ 500. The confirmation bias means that we are likely to throw a lot of money after bad to try to ‘get back’ to a winning situation.

Most game situations are also “zero sum”. If 5 players sit at the table with $ 2000 between them, 4 of them collectively lose most, and probably all, of their share. Most real life situations do not have the same total loss certainty. The terrible job could be offset by a good salary. The terrible boss might actually goad us to prove he’s wrong. If the business prospers as a whole, everyone gains more of the new wealth without loss.

Perhaps that is the biggest difference between “gambling” in the gambling sense and gambling with life. The games take place on a short, compressed timescale and you know UFA¬† your fate could be sealed in a matter of hours. In most situations in life, events unfold at a much slower pace. In fact, it is so leisurely that we may not even notice the results. Unhappiness can build so slowly that we don’t recognize it for years.

In contrast, a gambling-sense bet compresses that sequence of events into a few moments. That compressed surge of danger heightens the senses, heightens our awareness of what is at stake, and triggers a complex set of emotional and physiological responses that can be profoundly, deeply compelling.

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