10 min read

Science Behind Gambling

Whilst watching sports and placing bets, there are some fascinating physiological and psychological processes going on in your brain.

Over the past decade the issue of gambling addiction has become quite significant, so let's try to understand exactly how our behavior changes whilst betting.

Take a look at some interesting fundamental experiments conducted by a famous behavioral psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner. By using pigeons as test subjects, Skinner proved that there is a connection between a stimulus and a reaction to it.

And his study of rats’ behavior demonstrated that the most powerful addiction is formed at the point it fails to receive a desired reward having already received one – as is the case with gamblers winning and then losing a bet. If you keep winning, gradually dopamine levels will decrease and the game will become boring for you.

Another experiment resulted in rats eventually dying by constantly pressing a pedal, which caused a discharge of electricity which stimulated the pleasure center of their brain (1). These experiments show that if our internal and external limiters stop working, we run the risk of developing problem gambling behavior.

Nature has provided us with limiters – special areas of our brain responsible for self-control and regulation of emotions, such as fear and anxiety.

At a certain point, as long as you continue to make regular bets, you may become more dependent on the area of the brain which provides the dopamine rush than the area for self-control and anxiety, and this can lead to problem gambling behavior and addiction.

Also, few people know, but in fact dopamine is not a hormone of happiness. It is actually a hormone of anticipated pleasure, which means that this neurotransmitter is at its peak while waiting for your bet to win, and then subsides when your bet is played, regardless of the outcome.

Consequently, as the rush declines there is a sense of apathy, leading you to make even more bets regardless of whether you have won or not. As a result, you stop enjoying the game, despite placing further bets that only temporarily relieve the negative feelings caused by declining levels of dopamine (2).

How To Determine That You Are Currently At Risk?

There is a special assessment test for problem gambling behavior in the form of scales (3) such as “Social consequences”, “Financial consequences”, “Damaging behavior”, “Signs of depression” and “Compulsive disorder”. Let's have a closer look at them.

Financial consequences:

  • lack of a transparent planning and spending budget;
  • debts and their constant increase;
  • inability to fulfill one’s financial obligations (loan payments, utility bills, etc.) due to the impossibility of forecasting cash income.

Damaging behavior:

  • causing harm to others or yourself, including physical, which can be expressed by scratching the skin, pulling out the hair, etc.

Signs of depression:

  • long-term state of apathy;
  • feeling distressed;
  • lack of energy and reaction to pleasant events, as if nothing provides any enjoyment.

Compulsive disorder:

  • disturbing obsessive thoughts, often provoking irrational behavior.

Using these criteria, you can determine whether you are presently experiencing problem gambling behavior. If you notice that you’re showing some of these signs, then you should immediately stop gambling and seek specialist for advice.

Below you will find a list of indicators by which you can understand whether you are at risk. Use it as a self-assessment test.

  • the player needs more and more money to bet in order to experience more excitement and adrenaline rush;
  • there is a feeling of anxiety and irritation when there is no access to gambling;
  • it is difficult to interrupt the game and take a break;
  • obsessive thoughts about betting or how to fund betting;
  • betting as a way to get away from anxiety and depression;
  • chasing losses;
  • lying about the frequency of gambling;
  • gambling is becoming more important than actual job or study;
  • encouraging other people to place bets.

If you find yourself with more than three signs, then you should discuss this with a psychologist.

How To Avoid Falling Into Problem Gambling Behavior?

  • carefully study the rules of the game esp. hidden commissions and other terms;
  • check the license and reputation of the operator you want to gamble with;
  • do not gamble when tired, upset, anxious and vice versa in excitement and euphoria;
  • remember that alcohol, drugs and medications impair judgment, which will affect your decisions;
  • financial management: determine the amount you can spend on gambling without borrowing or using money intended for other purposes;
  • time management: determine the time you can spend on gambling, take breaks from the game, gamble at such a time of the day when you do not feel exhausted;
  • never try to chase a big loss;
  • discuss your gambling with your loved ones and a psychologist so that they can give feedback if something appears to be wrong;
  • remember that the chances of winning are not so great, there is always a risk of losing;
  • do not rely on superstitions;
  • If you feel that you are not in control of the situation, isolate yourself from the game by using the self-exclusion tool.

Scientific research also shows that the most effective method of preventing problem gambling behavior is self-control and personal responsibility of the player (4).

To improve your mood and be filled with the right energy, focus on producing “hormones of happiness” (5).


  1. (B.F. Skinner ​​The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis, 1938. ISBN 1-58390-007-1, ISBN 0-87411-487-X.);
  2. This is confirmed by studies of problem gambling behavior – the subjects of the Canadian study say that gambling is a way to alleviate a bad mood, 30% of the subjects have already turned to a psychologist because of a depressed state, 50% admitted having suicidal thoughts (signs of gambling addiction in the Canadian context: a preliminary study using the DSM-Iv questionnaire. Author: Baudouin K. M. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry. Revue canadienne de psychiatrie, (1999 June), Volume 44, No. 5, pp. 483-7. Journal code: 7904187. ISSN: 0706-7437. L-ISSN: 0706-7437.);
  3. (Li, H., Mao, L.L., Zhang, J.J. et al. Dimensions of Problem Gambling Behavior Associated with Purchasing Sports Lottery. J Gambl Stud 28, 47–68 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10899-011-9243-3).
  4. (Ariyabuddhiphongs, V. Problem Gambling Prevention: Before, During, and After Measures. Int J Ment Health Addiction 11, 568–582 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-013-9429-2);
  5. (Habits of a Happy Brain. Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin and Endorphin levels. Loretta Graziano Breuning).
Anna Kravtcova
Anna Kravtcova
1 December 2022 13:10