Research

The goal of the Centre is to reduce the harms associated with problem gambling through the scientific study of the psychology and the neuroscience of gambling games and problem gamblers, ultimately improving evidence-based gambling policy.

What are the harms associated with problem gambling? Gambling is a form of recreation that around three-quarters of the population engage in, at least occasionally. For some of these individuals, their gambling becomes excessive. Some common negative consequences of problem gambling include financial debt, lying or concealing gambling losses, and putting one’s gambling ahead of family or job. In its most extreme form, ‘pathological gambling’ (recently renamed ‘gambling disorder’) is a recognised mental illness. Pathological gamblers can display cravings, withdrawal symptoms, and tolerance, which are widely regarded as the hallmarks of an addiction, and this illness is now recognised as the prototype ‘behavioural addiction’. The term ‘problem gambling’ acknowledges that these harms are not limited to the most extreme group with a full-blown diagnosis. People with gambling problems are at increased risk of other mental health problems including depression and alcohol misuse, and also physical health problems. The symptoms of problem gambling can also impact negatively upon other family members and the wider community. Problem gambling is a treatable condition, and there are a variety of free treatment options provided in B.C., with links on our Resources page.

How do we study the psychology of gambling games? Different forms of gambling contain a number of psychological features that make these games fun and exciting to play, but which may also underlie excessive gambling. These games may also promote cognitive distortions in how the player estimates their likelihood of winning or their level of skill in the game. Much of our work uses simplified gambling games to isolate particular features or distortions in the laboratory. We can take ratings from participants while they play the games, as well as measuring how long they play for and how much they are willing to bet. By looking at individual differences in these responses, we can identify vulnerability markers for problem gambling. Further understanding of the game features that are most closely linked to abuse liability will also inform evidence-based gambling policy.

How do we study the neuroscience of gambling? Any gamble constitutes a risky decision, and our research utilises a variety of cognitive neuroscience techniques to examine the neural circuitry that supports this decision-making. We have used functional MRI to measure brain responses to monetary rewards (and near-misses), and brain activity as people choose how much to bet on a gamble. Investigation of neurological patients with focal brain injury provides a complimentary line of work here. We can also study brain neurotransmitters involved in gambling, using either PET imaging or by administering certain drug agents that target a particular system. Finally, we are very interested in physiological signals at the level of the body (e.g. heart rate changes or hormonal fluctuations), as markers of ‘excitement’. Using these measures, we can compare responses between groups of participants with and without gambling problems.

How can gambling research influence public policy? Responsible gambling (or responsible gaming) refers to an initiative across the international gambling field to encourage gamblers to play in a fun but controlled manner, to prevent problem gambling and more generally minimise the harms associated with gambling. A large number of different strategies and regulations exist with these aims in mind, from legal restrictions on minimum age and alcohol/tobacco availability, to voluntary self-exclusion programs and forms of treatment provision, and technological innovations involving player tracking and pre-commitment. At present, these strategies may be grounded on common-sense intuitions, but the science is at an early stage. New interventions must be evaluated to establish their effectiveness, and existing interventions should be optimised and/or tailored to at-risk groups.