What Is Gambling?


Gambling is the wagering of something of value on a random event with the intent to win a prize. It can take place in many forms, from the playing of card games or dice for recreation with family and friends to placing bets on horse races or football games. Regardless of the form, gambling has negative and positive societal impacts for gamblers, their significant others, and society as a whole. The negative impacts include financial, labor, health and well-being, and emotional distress. The positive impacts include entertainment, social interaction, and cognitive skills development.

Gambling, like any other addiction, hijacks the brain’s reward pathway. When we experience a winning event, our brain produces dopamine that reinforces more of the same behavior. This is a good thing when we are practicing a skill, such as shooting baskets into the net, but not when we are gambling and continually lose money and feel no sense of accomplishment. This is why people who struggle with gambling disorder seek treatment for their addiction.

There is no single way to define a gambling problem or disorder, and researchers, psychiatrists and other treatment care clinicians, and public policy makers all frame questions about gambling from different paradigms or world views. This creates a lot of confusion and disagreement about what we mean by gambling problems. The nomenclature is also challenging because it is constantly evolving as we learn more about the underlying causes of gambling disorders.