Animal Studies Provide Key Insights into Problem Gambling

As sports seasons heat up and championship games approach, the heightened excitement surrounding various events increases the likelihood of harmful gambling behaviors, especially among individuals susceptible to compulsive gambling. However, studies on animal behavior have revealed valuable data that can be used to develop more effective harm-prevention strategies.

Dr. Daniel Marston, a leading psychologist, recently examined this topic for Psychology Today, highlighting how the legalization of gambling in many states has led to more prevalent problems among younger demographics. He referred to a study by Thomas R. Zentall from the Department of Psychology at the University of Kentucky, which compared behavioral similarities between humans and animals.

Fascinating revelations from these studies have provided valuable parallels to understanding problematic gambling behaviors. For example, studies on rats and pigeons show that many would opt for riskier paths with the potential for higher rewards, even if they are significantly more uncertain. These animal studies show surprising similarities to problematic gambling in humans, including the tendency to engage in high-risk behaviors when isolated or in less stimulating environments.

This emphasizes the link between environmental context and gambling behavior, as well as the allure of excitement leading individuals to value potential gains over potential losses. Such behaviors closely correlate to signs of addiction and may reveal new ways to help problem gambling victims.

One significant intervention for people struggling with addiction involves increasing positive and engaging activities tailored to individuals’ interests and excitement levels. Encouraging mindfulness and emphasizing a focus on the present moment has proven beneficial in redirecting attention from the mere pursuit of excitement to an awareness of behavior and its consequences. Dr. Marston, who has worked for years with people who have gambling problems, has seen these types of interventions help.

These findings could be invaluable to organizations like the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), the USA’s leading organization dedicated to reducing gambling harm. The NCPG has recently drawn attention to the country’s rising youth gambling rates, highlighting how teens and young adults could be more susceptible to addiction.

Understanding how compulsive behaviors work across species can further refine existing strategies for aiding individuals struggling with gambling addiction. It may be especially beneficial to younger people, whose brains are still developing, by providing them with more positive and stimulating experiences. While this approach will not eliminate gambling harm, it is a vital tool to help protect vulnerable groups.