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A Closer Look at Gambling Addictions

A report in the BBC (May 2011) describes the case of a 51-year-old elder-care giver in Plymouth who managed to steal £90,000 from residents with dementia. When investigated, her thefts turned out to be motivated by addiction to bingo. The article does not specify, interestingly, whether the bingo she played was online or in bingo halls. [1] Since her stealing occurred over just two years, however, it is reasonable to assume that part of the bingo she played was Web-based, perhaps even on a mobile phone.

This story brings certain questions to light concerning the dangers of casual gambling like online bingo. Why do people become addicted to gambling thrills? What makes certain forms of gambling more addictive and disruptive to people’s lives than other forms?

Research has shone that gambling addiction is largely a subjective or internally-rooted disorder, as opposed to it being the more-or-less expected reaction to an objectively addictive substance or experience. Most anyone’s body will form a need for certain narcotics while in the hospital, for instance, and yet one may not have an ‘addictive personality’ in general. Gambling, on the other hand, appears to be a personal obsession, ‘an impulse control disorder that is a chronic and progressive mental illness’. [2] Indeed, most people may not fancy the spikes of stress and relief relished by gamblers, just as not everyone enjoys a scary or violent film.

Still, the reason for susceptibility to excess gambling can also be explained in some cases by a person’s physical deficiencies in the body’s natural neuro-chemicals norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine. The high of winning money has been measured in the brain and it closely resembles the rush a cocaine addict feels when getting a fix. [3]


This means that gambling is not a danger induced entirely by one kind of particularly alluring betting game (as if it were a strong drug with universal effects). Since certain individuals will have a weakness for gambling (whether psychological or in the smaller amount of cases physiological), the modality of gambling-like experiences is most important. In other words, casual, convenient gambling will create more problems for an addict than gambling in formal situations like bingo halls, during vacations or in casinos.

Each mode of gambling should be weighed specifically in order to understand whether it might represent a higher temptation. Gambling addiction is similar to other kinds of mental maladies such as anti-social disorders, schizophrenia or even kleptomania and pyromania. These types of mental diseases must be treated by attending to the individuals’ relationships to their fixations (bingo cards, petty thefts or fires, for instance), as well as the conditions under which they feel most helpless toward their fixations.


Now, since gambling addiction for the most part is a subjective experience, it is not unreasonable to step back and look at social patterns whilst seeking to understand this form of modern suffering. In the most general sense, could it be that a lowered quality of life for most normal people makes them vulnerable to growing attached to the relatively easy-to-get thrill of betting small stakes? Are people chronically bored by their jobs and routines? Do modern schedules disallow enough social interaction and ‘quality time’ with friends and family?

Maybe the majority of our lifestyles in ‘developed’ countries leave people lacking meaning or a fulfilling sense of purpose and challenge. In some basic sense, now at the beginning of the 21st Century (in all its techno-utopian symbolism) it may be time to ask whether all the conveniences of automation and our alienation from organic processes (especially the experience of time) is staking the deck against us in terms of feeling happy.

To some extent it is naïve to wonder whether the modern and highly spectacular media culture preys upon people’s lacklustre lifestyles. It is well known that we tend to live vicariously in the lives of TV characters or reality-show protagonists. Advertising is scientifically modelled in order to exploit people’s insecurities and their suppressed wanderlust. Therefore, a thorough response to gambling addiction requires an honest analysis of how our advanced society (with all its success at entertainment and commercial development) shoots its own foot.

Cases like the care-giver from Plymouth, who took £42,000 from one resident alone, should invite public health practitioners and justice officers to consider the social determinants of gambling addiction ¾ to a much larger extent than when the Plymouth thief’s defence team suggested ‘[t]his form of addiction needs to be confirmed [before sentencing]’. [4]

Perhaps it is intrinsically unfair that a culture ¾ with unprecedented material abundance as in the West ¾ over time develops socio-economic routines based upon exploiting people’s weakness of character when it comes to controlling their human impulses. When controlling our impulses is the cornerstone of a healthy ego and a civil society, a la Freudian psychology, isn’t it necessary to diagnose the greater culture if its operative folklore attacks members where they are weakest, in order merely to grow the economy?

Returning to the example of online bingo as just one Achilles’ Heel among many for the contemporary malcontent citizen, it is actually the way people can play Bingo that proves most dangerous rather than the fact that the game is available (legal). For someone who lacks excitement and meaning in life ¾ let alone enough time for wholesome experiences such as social contact ¾ the forms of gambling that prove most difficult to resist are those where thrills can be delivered intravenously, as it were: surreptitiously, alone, quickly and with very little preparation required. In this sense, one’s habit of going to the Bingo Hall once a week or vacationing every year at a casino resort will be far less destructive (if one has a gambling compulsion) than when this person gets accustomed to grabbing promiscuous games of Bingo on a smart phone in any bit of spare time.

The popularity of online gambling is exploding alongside the boom of mobile electronics and broadband services. On this course, we will find out how social policies that ignore how and why people fall prey to gambling-related crimes, rather than just examining what addiction was involved, will fail to consider underlying cultural patterns. If we’re smart, by tackling a social ill like casual gambling addiction we can seize the opportunity to scrutinize and rectify unfair cultural patterns that amount to justified or normalized pandering ¾ despite the moral lessons we are taught in school.



[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-devon-13339109

[2] http://www.medic8.com/healthguide/articles/gambling.html

[3] ibid

[4] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-devon-13339109