The psychology of gambling is a potentially important and interesting area of investigation for a number of reasons. First, gambling activities are widespread in this country and abroad; the increase in legalized forms such as state lotteries, jai alai, and casino gambling, as well as more use of illegal forms, shows how common is the pastime.
As a set of behaviors important to many people’s lives, it is worthy of study without even considering the additional influences, e.g., the serious effects on some individuals, families, and communities; though it may be true that only some “gamblers” have a gambling-related problem, their behavior may have severe effects on the lives of other people.
The study of gambling also opens up more general questions of risk-taking, superstition, reaction to success and failure, and a host of intriguing questions.
Despite the fascinating possibilities, not much research has been conducted. The number of individuals who have published studies of gamblers is not great, and many hypotheses have not been studied. The few studies that exist need replication and extension. This state of affairs may have several explanations. Gamblers and gambling activity can be difficult to study.
Much gambling activity is illegal, and even many legalized gambling centers go to great lengths to insure privacy for patrons and to discourage snooping psychologists. Most gamblers do not end up in therapists’ offices; thus, many who gamble are not known as gamblers.
Another problem is that there are many kinds of gambling activities, and one cannot generalize from betting on horses, taking part in football pools, playing blackjack, or playing slot machines to another form of gambling, or even to gambling in general. The personality characteristics of people who play poker weekly with friends may be quite different from other gamblers, for instance. For these reasons, there exist very few solid research studies on the psychology of gamblers.
The three major approaches that can be seen in the range of work on the gambler will be presented here. This is not an exhaustive literature review, but rather an impression to the orientations that have been used and to what we know about gamblers.
The most common viewpoint has defined certain gamblers as sick, and thus has emphasized the negative aspects of these people and their gambling. Freudian theory has been particularly obvious in this perspective. A second, opposing outlook suggests that gambling is usually not indicative of pathology, but rather, can promote growth.
Perhaps gamblers may be healthier than other people. This is a fairly recent approach that has not generated much research. The third area involves assessment-oriented researchers, who study personality characteristics to see how gamblers differ from non-gamblers, as well as how various types of gamblers can be distinguished.