Gambling involves risking something of value on an event that is at least partly determined by chance with the hope of winning a prize. While the term ‘gambling’ usually evokes images of slot machines and casinos, the activity also encompasses a vast range of activities that involve placing bets. These include stock market trading, buying life insurance, and even paying for lottery tickets or scratchcards. While most people who engage in gambling do so for fun, a subset of individuals develop problems with their behavior and experience a loss of control over their spending and time spent on the activity. This is referred to as gambling disorder and can have profound consequences for their personal, family, and work lives.
Research in the field of gambling has been focused on examining its economic impacts and exploring the factors that may contribute to such behaviors. However, little is known about the social and psychological impacts of gambling and how these impact a person’s daily functioning. Research on these impacts is critically needed as gambling continues to become more acceptable and accessible, with the exception of Utah and Hawaii, which have made it illegal.
The social and psychological effects of gambling can be analyzed at three levels: individual, interpersonal, and community/society. Individual impacts are experienced by the gambler and include distress and impairment. Interpersonal impacts involve the gambler’s friends, family members and coworkers. Finally, community/society impacts are felt by those outside the gambler and can include costs and benefits that accrue to society as a whole.
Many studies have examined the economic impact of gambling, but fewer have considered its social impacts. In order to quantify a gambling impact, it is important to measure both the monetary costs as well as nonmonetary costs or benefits. To do so, longitudinal data are required, which are ideally collected over the course of several years. This allows researchers to identify and understand the underlying causes of an individual’s gambling behavior and how these influences change over time.
While gambling is not a popular pastime among the general public, four in five adults have placed a bet at some point in their lives. While most people who gamble do so for entertainment and only with money they can afford to lose, it is estimated that two million Americans have problems with their gambling. In the past, the psychiatric community viewed pathological gambling as more of a compulsion than an addiction; however, in its latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the American Psychiatric Association moved it into the category of impulse-control disorders alongside kleptomania, pyromania, and trichotillomania (hair-pulling). While many of these individuals have trouble recognizing their problem, others are able to seek help and break the cycle of harmful gambling habits. Nonetheless, some individuals are more vulnerable to developing a gambling problem than others, and this can be attributed to genetics, brain chemistry, and culture. Specifically, those with low incomes and men are more likely to develop a gambling disorder.