Understanding Gambling From the Lens of Operant Conditioning

operant conditioning

When you have a loved one who likes to gamble, it can sometimes be hard to understand their behaviors, especially when they are losing more than they are winning. Why do they keep returning to the poker table or slot machine?

The allure of gambling has a lot to do with how the brain works. One way to understand your family member’s urge to gamble is by examining the concept of operant conditioning and how positive or negative reinforcements alter a person’s psychological state.

What Is Operant Conditioning?

Operant conditioning is a type of associative learning in which a person begins associating behavior with a certain consequence. When a positive reinforcement follows a particular behavior, the person will be more likely to repeat the behavior in order to get the reward.

A famous example of this phenomenon is a rat in a Skinner box, which has a lever for the rat to push to receive a treat. Once the rat learns that it can push the lever to get food, it will repeat this behavior again and again.

How Is Gambling Related to Operant Conditioning?

People inside a casino (or playing online gambling games) are similar to rats in a Skinner box. They perform a particular action (such as pulling the lever on a slot machine) and receive a reward. Because they are thrilled by the reward, gamblers will keep betting for the chance to feel that pleasure again.

The reinforcement that encourages the gambler’s behavior could be a particular amount of money or the thrill of the flashing lights and ringing sounds. The rewards for gambling could additionally be psychological, such as a release of dopamine and adrenaline hormones. Many gamblers are also encouraged to keep playing because of the social rewards (cheers and praise from others).

Even if you have not gambled yourself, you know that it’s not possible to win every single time. How, then, are gamblers still interested in placing bets? Gambling is rewarded on a partial reinforcement schedule, which means the behavior is not reinforced every time (i.e., the person may not win any money). Additionally, the gambler’s actions are not reinforced in a fixed pattern (a variable ratio schedule), and this unpredictability makes it challenging for a gambler to stop playing. They may feel like a win is just one pull of the lever or hand deal away.

How Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Can Help

Not every gambler is a problem gambler. However, the issue is so widespread (about 15 million Americans are at risk of developing a gambling problem) that it’s important to recognize the warning signs of a gambling problem and seek help as soon as possible.

Cognitive behavioral therapy for gambling is one treatment option available. CBT encourages problem gamblers to take a moment whenever they feel an urge to gamble. They should ask themselves why they feel like gambling and what they can do to change their behavior. A cognitive behavioral therapist can help the person find a healthier way to deal with their gambling urges.

Receive Support for a Gambling Problem Today

Managing a gambling problem can be challenging. However, with the right support and guidance, the person can overcome it. If you know someone struggling to manage their gambling behaviors, you can encourage them to attend Gamblers Anonymous meetings. You can also call 1-800-GAMBLER for more information about cognitive behavioral therapy and other treatment options. Contact us today to start reaching for a brighter future.


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