The goal of the Centre is to improve understanding of the psychology of gambling behaviour and gambling addiction, in order to reduce the harms associated with gambling and enhance evidence-based gambling policy.

What are gambling harms? Gambling is a form of recreation that around three-quarters of the population engage in, at least occasionally. For around 3-5% of the population, their gambling becomes excessive. For example, in the most recent BC prevalence survey in 2014, 3.3% reported moderate-risk or high-risk gambling behaviour. Common negative consequences of problem gambling include financial debt, lying or concealing gambling losses, and this often places a considerable burden on family relationships. In its most extreme form, ‘gambling disorder’ is a recognized mental illness that is now grouped alongside the substance addictions as a behavioural addiction. The term ‘problem gambling’ acknowledges that these harms are not limited to this most severe group. People with gambling problems are at increased risk of other mental health problems including depression and alcohol misuse, as well as physical health problems. Problem gambling is a treatable condition, and there are a number of resources available in B.C., including those offered by the BC Responsible and Problem Gambling Program (see links on our Gambling Help page).

The central theme of our research is that gambling harms arise from the combination of personal vulnerability factors and the psychological effects of gambling games. Within this framework, the Centre has three research programs. One is investigating modern slot machine games, which we view as one of the most harmful forms of gambling. The second is looking at behavioural markers of problematic gambling in the online environment. The third is looking at neurobiological risk factors for gambling disorder, which includes brain imaging research in people with gambling problems.

How do we study the psychology of gambling games?

Different forms of gambling differ along a number of psychological dimensions, which may help us understand which forms of gambling are more harmful (or ‘addictive’). These ingredients, such as the speed of the game, or the presence of audiovisual feedback (‘bells and whistles’) may also promote cognitive distortions in how the player estimates when they will next win, or their level of skill in the game. Some of our research at UBC uses actual slot machines that were provided to us from the BCLC. In other research, we use simplified gambling games to isolate particular ingredients or cognitive distortions in a more controlled way. Some of our experiments involve undergraduate participants from UBC, many of whom do not have prior experience with slot machines, while other studies involve community recruitment of regular gamblers, in which we measure symptoms of problem gambling.

How do we study the neuroscience of gambling?

Much of our research in the Casino Lab at UBC involves physiological measures, including cardiac measures (heart rate, heart rate variability) and eye tracking. For example, one of our objectives in slot machine gambling is to disentangle physiological signals of ‘excitement’ from signals of ‘immersion’. Other research uses brain imaging techniques, including ongoing projects from data collected in the U.K. as well as newer studies at the UBC Centre for Brain Health. Using functional MRI, for example, we can measure brain responses during risky decisions (such as how much to bet on a gamble) and in response to winning money (as well as near-misses). We can also use PET imaging to study brain neurotransmitters involved in gambling, such as the role of dopamine system.

How does gambling research influence public policy?

In communicating our research, we pay careful attention to the policy implications of our findings, and how best to engage policy makers. Our research is regularly featured in knowledge translation blogs such as the WAGER (Harvard Division on Addictions) and the GREO ‘Research Snapshots’. Research on gambling prevention and ‘responsible gambling’ is a young field, and there is a basic lack of data on the effectiveness of many interventions. A systematic review from 2017 (Ladouceur et al 2017 Addiction Research & Theory) identified fewer than 30 studies that examined RG interventions in real gamblers who were engaged in real gambling. Along with many researchers internationally, we are working to build that evidence base, in order that future gambling policy can be grounded in research on what is effective.

Some of our research is responding to international trends, such as the convergence of gambling with video gaming (gamification and gamblification). Other research is responsive to provincial priorities and knowledge gaps that were identified in two BC reports on gambling: modern slot machines as a high risk form, and online gambling as a relatively new and poorly understood form of gambling. Dr Clark is one of several contributors to a comprehensive Canadian report called the Conceptual Framework of Harmful Gambling (coordinated by Gambling Research Exchange Ontario, version 3 published in 2019), which is intended for policy makers.