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Factors Contributing to the Development of Pathological Gambling

Kory Sinha
Rochester Institute of Technology

Pathological gamblers may have a predisposition to developing a gambling problem due to family history and genetics. The personality trait of impulsivity plays a major role in the development of pathological gambling and is one of the key components in other impulse related disorders such as substance abuse disorder. There are some differences between the genders for development, sustenance, and getting treatment for pathological gambling. Males are exposed to gambling at a younger age and prefer different types of gambling related activities. Environmental stressors and other factors such as socioeconomic status also play a role in problem gambling situations.

Gambling problems and the habits underlying pathological gambling can be attributed to some aspects of an individual's personality and to outside factors such as current environment. Many different factors may contribute to the development of a gambling problem that can interfere with a person's life or, in more severe cases of pathological gambling, consume a very significant portion of an individual's time and end up as a detriment to the individual in most cases. Some factors that contribute to gambling problems include impulsivity, coping ability, and susceptibility to depression. A person's proneness to substance abuse may also lead to a gambling problem. Substance abuse disorders and pathological gambling are often comorbid conditions, although neither necessarily causes the other; both conditions share many similarities, and both have an underlying cause in lack of impulse control (Petry, 2002). In addition to personality influences, environmental factors such as stressors can affect the development of a gambling problem.

Although the major focus of this paper is on personality aspects that contribute to gambling problems, one cannot dismiss environmental factors, which in some cases may be more influential than one's personality and other possible genetic influences. As there are many factors that contribute to one's personality, there are also many factors that contribute to problems that stem from personality, like a pathological gambling problem.

Personality Risk Factors


Impulsivity is a basic aspect of an individual's personality, and levels of impulsivity may influence development of an impulse control disorder such as pathological gambling or a substance use disorder. Assuming one's personality is generally stable over time, people may find it hard to control their gambling problems or other impulse-control related disorders, because personality is difficult to change. If there is an adequate level of impulse control, then an individual is not likely to develop a disorder such as pathological gambling.

Impulsive people are naturally more prone to gambling problems because of their nature and personality. That is not to say that all impulsive people will develop gambling habits or problems but they could if the right factors were in play at the right times. Inability to control impulses and also inability to delay gratification are two major impulsivity-related symptoms of pathological gamblers (McCormick & Taber, 1988).

Petry (2001) showed that persons who were pathological gamblers, with and without substance abuse disorders, had very high rates of discounting delay rewards in a behavioral task. Behavioral tasks such as this one show a high correlation between impulsivity and gambling because of a lack of delay of gratification. Temporal tasks may also be good for use as predictors of impulse control disorders such as pathological gambling in adolescents (Petry, 2001).

Impulsivity levels in both genders are important factors in the development of pathological gambling. Males and females differ in the factors contributing to the development of gambling problems. Males have a higher propensity than females to abuse substances in conjunction with a gambling problem. They are also more likely to use coping skills and strategies in comparison. Using distraction techniques and emotional outlet-seeking are examples of such coping. In contrast to the males, females are less likely to use coping. Intensity seeking was a more important contributing factor for females. In both genders, impulsivity was a strong predictor of a possible gambling problem (Nower, Derevensky, & Gupta, 2004). In both genders, high levels of impulsivity and high sensation seeking increased risk for a gambling problem.

Coping Strategies

In addition to impulsivity levels in problem gamblers there are also various coping strategies that contribute to the development of a gambling problem. Lightsey and Hulsey (2002) found a high positive correlation between ineffective coping strategies among the problem and pathological gamblers in their sample for both task and emotional coping in conjunction with high impulsivity. Ability to cope with various situations in an effective method would somewhat reduce the chances of developing a problem and put more emphasis on the level of impulsivity.

Antisocial Behavior

Pathological gamblers have been known to also exhibit antisocial behavior which is related to the impulse control disorder causing antisocial behavior such as exhibited in antisocial personality disorder (Slutske et al., 2001). Causes of both pathological gambling and antisocial personality disorder are correlated to genetic and environmental factors, including personality traits such as impulsivity. Slutske et al. (2001) conducted the study of PG and antisocial behavior using twins; controlling for genetic and shared environments, they found an association between gambling and the antisocial behavior in the participants.

Explanatory Style

Depression in some individuals also plays a role in the development or maintenance of a gambling problem. McCormick and Taber (1988) studied pathological gamblers undergoing treatment. They hypothesized based on the learned helplessness theory that patients would explain negative events as due to internal rather than external causes would be more likely to relapse. Explanatory styles and coping skills increased the likelihood of relapse.

Other Risk Factors


Many studies have shown men to be much more likely than women to develop gambling problems and to become pathological gamblers. Men's impulsivity levels, in addition to aggression, probably contribute to the act of gambling. A man's willing and need to get more money or just the desire to win, in association with a high impulsivity level, can drive him to gamble more frequently or to relapse after treatment. Males generally begin gambling at a younger age, especially given that many forms of gambling take place at male-dominated events such as sporting events. Although men start out gambling at a younger age than women, however, they seek help later (Ladd & Petry, 2002b).

Females in general have been found to be less likely than males to develop gambling problems. Women also often give different reasons than men do for relapse. Women cite negative emotions or situational problems, whereas men usually cite the need to win and the need for monetary sustenance (Hodgins & el-Guebaly, 2004). Females also report fewer alcohol-related problems and fewer legal issues compared to their male counterparts. If they are affected by pathological gambling, females are more likely to gamble in the lottery or casinos. Female pathological gamblers often gamble with friends, which probably prevents them from withdrawing as easily as they may wish (Ladd & Petry, 2002a).


Some adolescent males are more prone than females of the same age to develop pathological gambling and substance abuse. Peer group and social support might aid in the development of a gambling problem. An adolescent at high risk for developing a gambling problem will be affected by many social factors in addition to environmental factors such as the need for money. Family problems and conduct problems are further indicators and possible precursors of pathological gambling. Behavioral problems such as conduct disorder greatly increase the risk for development of problem gambling (Hardoon, Gupta, & Derevensky, 2004).

College students and others in the same age range are prone to gamble and possibly to develop gambling problems (Winters, Bengston, Dorr, & Stinchfield, 1998). Perceived social norms for college students contribute to gambling frequency, expenditure, and the possible later development of gambling problems. College students seem to be overly sensitive to norms that contribute to the maintenance of high-risk behavior such as gambling, alcohol consumption, and the like (Larimer & Neighbors, 2003).

Socioeconomic Status

Internet gambling has become more popular. It enables more types of people who do not have nearby access to a casino or betting track to start gambling more frequently and comfortably. It was initially assumed that people with a higher economic status are more likely to gamble on the internet, because they are more likely to be able to afford it, but this assumption has received mixed support. This can most likely be attributed to the fact that more affluent gamblers are able to afford to go to a casino more often than less affluent gamblers, who would rather play online, because online gambling is more convenient for most and probably cheaper.

Family History

A family history of pathological gambling or lesser gambling problems likely affects development of a gambling problem. Like alcoholism, heredity may play a role. Genetic predisposition may work through the trait of impulsivity to influence gambling. The more impulsive one's family members are, the more likely the individual will be impulsive as well. If family members were pathological gamblers themselves, then their impulsivity level might be high, and this would mean that the predisposition for the individual to become a pathological gambler him- or herself is also high.


For persons low on impulsivity, outside factors such as stress may be more likely to contribute to gambling problems (Lightsey & Hulsey, 2002). Stressors of many kinds can influence or exacerbate already existing gambling problems and other impulse-control disorders. Financial stressors especially affect gambling problems, especially for pathological gamblers who have undergone treatment. Financial stressors may cause them to relapse into gambling very quickly in order to compensate for any financial problem.

The Gambler's Fallacy

The gambler's fallacy also contributes to the continuation of gambling and the development of a gambling problem such as pathological gambling. The gambler's fallacy (Roney & Trick, 2003) is the propensity to perceive a series of independent trials as a continuing sequence or as a whole block. An example of this would be if a series of coin flips turned up heads several times in a row and one expected the next independent outcome to be different due to previous outcomes. Those who believe in the gambler's fallacy are more likely to continue to gamble even if they do not have the funds to do so. They perceive the independent trials as a whole and believe that their "luck" will change; given previous outcomes, a particular outcome is more likely, because everything should balance out. This notion most likely contributes to the continuation of problem gambling. It supplements an already impulsive individual's desire to continue gambling.


Many factors contribute to the development of gambling problems. Heredity, personality traits such as impulsivity, and family history all contribute to the development of gambling. Environmental and personal factors also contribute. Not enough research has been conducted on gambling to fully know the causes for development of gambling problems, but further research should build on the existing foundation.

Peer Commentary

Pathological Gamblers: Impulsive, or Impulsive Sensation Seekers?

Vanessa M. Mazza
Rochester Institute of Technology

A main personality risk factor covered by Kory Sinha in his paper "Factors Contributing to the Development of Pathological Gambling" was impulsivity. Although pathological gambling is generally considered to be an impulse control disorder, the personality trait of sensation seeking also seems to be an important factor. Research has shown that impulsivity and sensation seeking are correlated constructs, and they predict the same kinds of behavioral phenomena (Zuckerman & McDaniel, 2003). Whereas impulsivity is regarded as the inability to inhibit responses, sensation seeking may be defined as the tendency to seek out thrilling and exciting activities, to take risks, and to avoid boredom. Some aspects of sensation seeking are thrill and adventure seeking, experience (or intensity) seeking, disinhibition, and boredom susceptibility.

Gambling, unlike alcoholism or drug abuse, is considered a "drugless" impulse control disorder, yet gamblers experience sensations similar to those of substance abusers. These include sensations such as stimulation, tranquilization, or pain relief--often all three at the same time (Peck, 1986).

Pathological gamblers commonly exhibit certain traits. They thrive on challenges, are attracted to highly stimulating situations, tolerate boredom poorly, and if they find a task to be dull they will avoid it or not complete it (Peck, 1986). All of these traits seem to fit in well with the trait of sensation seeking.

Several studies have indeed reported high levels of sensation seeking in adult pathological gamblers; few studies, however, have explored this same relation in younger gamblers (Derevensky et al., 2004). Nevertheless, elevated levels of sensation seeking in youth have been linked to behaviors such as reckless driving, risky sexual behavior, and drug use, behaviors that are also related to high levels of impulsivity. In a recent study by Derevensky et al. (2004), youth gamblers differed from non-gamblers in their preference for strong sensory stimulation, defined earlier as "intensity seeking."

As with all behaviors, it is apparent that an interaction between factors, and not the factors alone, may be a cause. So too it may seem, as with pathological gambling, that an interaction between personality traits may put an individual at a higher risk. Perhaps it is not impulsivity or sensation seeking alone that is a personality risk factor for this disorder, but perhaps it is the inability to inhibit sensation seeking responses that makes certain individuals more prone to become pathological gamblers.

It is not surprising that impulsivity and sensation seeking seem to be correlated and are factors in some of the same behaviors. If one were to look at Eysenck's dimensions of extraversion and neuroticism in relation to Gray's dimensions of impulsivity and anxiety, one would see that persons who are highly extraverted and a bit neurotic are the most impulsive. Extraversion is, of course, related to sensation seeking. Extraverts have a low level of arousability--in other words, it takes more stimulation for them to be at an optimum level of arousal. Logically, working from the models and information presented above, it would make sense to assume that people who are impulsive are also high on sensation seeking.

Most studies on gambling (and other risk-taking activities) have utilized the Sensation-Seeking Scale (SSS; Zuckerman & McDaniel, 2003). The SSS includes items that assess several aspects of sensation seeking. Because the traits of impulsivity and sensation seeking seem to be linked, it would make sense to study not just one, but a combination of the two, with regard to pathological gambling.

A measure that combines these two constructs has been developed, termed "Impulsive Sensation Seeking" (ImpSS). The results of a study by Zuckerman and McDaniel (2003) that used this measure suggest that gamblers' primary motivation for their behavior might be arousal related to risk or to winning, but that they also tend to seek out variety in gambling activities.

Future research should take this finding into consideration and should study the heterogenity not only of gamblers but of gambling activities. Future research on factors contributing to pathological gambling should also take into consideration the interactions between factors, such as the interaction between impulsivity and sensation seeking.

Peer Commentary

Impulsivity Versus the Addictive Nature of Gambling

Ricardo M. Seijas
Rochester Institute of Technology

After reading this paper, I see gambling from a different point of view. For the author of this paper, impulsivity seems to be the personality factor contributing to pathological gambling in combination with hereditary and environment. I believe all of these are important aspects of pathological and problem gambling; but I believe the author omits an important personality factor: the person's susceptibility to an enhanced state of mind.

Going back to the nature versus nurture standpoint, is one born with one's personality or is it learned and acquired from the environment? The way I see it, one is born with one's personality, certain traits that make one who one is. This innate personality in turn interacts with the environment and enhances one's basic personality attributes. This can be seen when two different persons go through the same experience, yet they perceive this experience differently and cope with it in different manners. Yet two people with completely different upbringing can go through the same experience and perceive it the same. So although environment can provoke a person to become a problem gambler, I do not see it as being a major factor. A conscientious person who grew up with a family history of pathological gambling or of impulsivity might reject his or her upbringing, seeing the problems it has caused within family members. So I strongly agree with the author's viewpoint on coping strategies as a reason for pathological gambling, as will be seen from my next point.

Although a person who gambles can be impulsive and many times will be impulsive, this is not what keeps the person at the craps, blackjack, poker, roulette, or any gambling table or activity; it is the mental state the person is in while gambling. Many pathological gamblers perceive gambling as their fix, their addiction to excitement and adrenaline. For many, the feeling of control at a poker table, the rush they have of being able to read the opponent's bluff and make bluffs of their own, is what keeps them gambling. Gambling being a game of chance and probability (in most cases, such as roulette, craps, or slot machines) and in other cases of strategy, prediction, and control (such as poker or blackjack) may cause the individual to feel a rush at the moment of placing a bet. Not knowing the outcome and having something on the line can cause a sense of excitement, a state that ordinary situations would not produce. A person with strong impulsivity will jump into situations without thinking of the consequences that the action might bring, but that does not mean that impulsivity will keep them in that situation over a prolonged period of time, as is characteristic of pathological gamblers. Impulsivity is a strong reason to gamble, but it is not what keeps one gambling; how one copes with the emotional state that gambling induces keeps one gambling.

People start on the path to pathological gambling for many reasons--financial problems, the gambler's fallacy, upbringing, etc.--but what determines whether one will become a problem gambler is how one deals with the addictiveness of gambling and the emotions gambling evokes. These are distinct from financial motives, because when gambling is induced for financial reasons, it is probably the means of last resort to solve financial problems and goes along with a strong tendency toward the gambler's fallacy--in other words, ignorance.

Author Response

What Keeps Gamblers Going?

Kory Sinha
Rochester Institute of Technology

An important aspect about which I neglected to go into depth in my paper was the need to win, especially the need to win money. The need to win and the sensation brought forth from winning or lack of winning keeps the gambler going. A win fires gamblers up; impulsivity and sensation seeking entice them to keep going, even if their monetary situation suggests this is not a good idea. Moreover, losses make gamblers just want to win more next time and keep them hoping that perhaps their luck will change, utilizing the gambler's fallacy.

Mazza wrote a well thought-out peer commentary that elaborated on the impact of sensation seeking on pathological gambling. She talked about how sensation seeking and impulsivity were correlated constructs. An interesting concept brought up was how pathological gambling is considered to be a "drugless" impulse control disorder and how similar sensations are felt by pathological gamblers and substance abusers. Another good point was the interaction between factors such as impulsivity and sensation seeking together being the cause of a disorder such as pathological gambling; just one may not lead to the disorder, which may be the effect of all the factors interacting.

Seijas' peer commentary also made good points about gamblers' susceptibility to an enhanced state of mind, which I interpret to be similar to if not the same as sensation seeking. He stated that impulsivity alone may not be the reason for continuation of gambling but that the reason is the emotional state induced by gambling--basically the sensation that is felt when gambling. Impulsivity and sensation seeking, however, are correlated constructs, as mentioned by Mazza, and a lack of impulsivity may also suggest a lesser need for sensation seeking. Seijas discussed how the excitement of the act of gambling is what keeps people gambling--for example, making bluffs or calling an opponent's bluff in a poker game. Although there is a rush during the play itself, I believe that the primary sensation desired is only achieved during or after a victory. If an individual were to make a bluff but were called and lost, then any possible rush felt during the hand would be lost. Drawing parallels to drug use, the rush is only felt at the end, when getting high. The act of taking the drug is probably not what the individual actually cares about--it is only the end result--in this case, getting high.

Both commentaries discussed good points and elaborated on aspects of the issue about which I had not gone into depth, such as sensation seeking. Because there has been a relatively small amount of in-depth research on gambling problems and pathological gambling, it is somewhat tougher to discuss all the factors and causes definitively. As more gambling activities, such as poker and playing the lottery, and more casinos pop up around the world, gambling problems will most likely be on the rise, and more research should be conducted in order to find out why such problems occur.


Derevensky, L., Gupta, R., & Nower, L. (2004). The relationship of impulsivity, sensation seeking, coping, and substance use in youth gamblers. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 18, 49-55.

Hardoon, K. K., Gupta, R., & Derevensky, J. L. (2004). Psychosocial variables associated with adolescent gambling. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 18, 170-179.

Hodgins, D. C., & el-Guebaly, N. (2004). Retrospective and prospective reports of precipitants to relapse in pathological gambling. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 72, 72-80.

Ladd, G. T., & Petry, N. M. (2002a). Disordered gambling among university-based medical and dental patients: A focus on internet gambling. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 16, 76-79.

Ladd, G. T., & Petry, N. M. (2002b). Gender differences among pathological gamblers seeking treatment. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 10, 302-309.

Lightsey, O. R., & Hulsey, C. D. (2002). Impulsivity, coping, stress, and problem gambling among university students. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 49, 202-211.

McCormick, R. A., & Taber, J. I. (1988). Attributional style in pathological gamblers in treatment. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 97, 368-370.

Nower, L., Derevensky, J. L., & Gupta, R. (2004). The relationship of impulsivity, sensation seeking, coping, and substance use in youth gamblers. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 18, 49-55.

Peck, C. P. (1986). A public mental health issue: Risk-taking behavior and compulsive gambling. American Psychologist, 41, 461-465.

Petry, N. M. (2001). Pathological gamblers, with and without substance use disorders, discount delayed rewards at high rates. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 110, 482-487.

Petry, N. M. (2002). How treatments for pathological gambling can be informed by treatments for substance use disorders. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology, 10, 184-192.

Roney, C. J. R., & Trick, L. M. (2003). Grouping and gambling: A gestalt approach to understanding the gambler's fallacy. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 57, 69-75.

Slutske, W. S., Eisen, S., Xian, H., True, W. R., Lyons, M. J., Goldberg, J., & Tsuang, M. (2001). A twin study of the association between pathological gambling and antisocial personality disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 110, 297-308.

Winters, K. C., Bengston, P., Dorr, D., & Stinchfield, R. (1998). Prevalence and risk factors of problem gambling among college students. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, 12, 127-135.

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