The Science Behind Gambling

Learn how gambling affects your brain and factors that may provoke problematic gambling.

When you gamble, your brain releases dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter that makes you feel excited. You’d expect to only feel excited when you win, but your body produces this neurological response even when you lose.

This means that once the thrill of the moment takes over, some people have trouble recognizing when it is time to stop playing.

How Does Gambling Affect the Brain?

Along with the release of dopamine to the brain, gambling comes with other potential rewards, including money, social participation and enjoyment. While most of us are able to walk away when we lose and practice safer play habits, others may continue gambling to win back the money they have lost in a phenomenon known as chasing losses. These individuals may begin to develop problems with gambling.

Research conducted by Brain Connections explores how gambling can spiral from an enjoyable pastime into an addiction. When the brain’s rewards system becomes altered by problem gambling, new habits form that become hard to break. This can lead an individual to feel out of control. Watch the video below for more information on how this unfolds.

What Leads People to Develop a Problem with Gambling?

A myriad of factors may put a person at risk to develop a problem with gambling. Studies show that contributing factors such as environment, available resources, age, mood disorders, substance abuse, cultural background and socioeconomic status may increase the likelihood.

Coauthored by international research experts and informed by multiple participants, the Conceptual Framework of Harmful Gambling explores eight factors associated with problem gambling. These factors are broken down by gambling-specific factors (such as gambling environment, gambling exposure, gambling types, and gambling resources) as well as general factors (such as cultural, social, psychological, and biological).

To learn more about each factor, visit


What Factors Might Provoke Problem Gambling?


    • Where individuals live can affect the nature and frequency of their gambling activity.
    • The gambling environment is affected by the number of nearby casinos and the type of gambling that takes place there.
    • It is controlled and regulated by governments and influenced by consumer demand.
    • The environment and community you’re in may affect your exposure and approach to gambling and influence whether you develop harmful gambling behaviour.

    • These refer to the resources available to the individual that can prevent or reduce harm and how accessible and available they are.
    • They can be in the form of programs to help prevent the development of problematic gambling behaviour or tools to assess the risk of gambling products.

    • Research has shown that some people, such as those with an underactive brain reward system, may be genetically predisposed for thrill-seeking behaviours and impulsivity.
    • Studies looking into these biological factors reveal differences in brain regions that are involved in decision-making.
    • This can mean a difference in how individuals may process reward information, control impulses and weigh risk.

    • Some communities consider gambling a common pastime, making it difficult to recognize a problem.
    • Since culture can be a central influence on your values, this can also make it harder to seek help when you need it.
    • These shared thoughts or values can affect people’s views on gambling activity and what constitutes a problem.

    • Psychological disorders and conditions, in addition to coping styles, social learning and beliefs, could make someone more susceptible to harmful gambling.
    • Individuals with gambling problems may also suffer from substance abuse and mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety.
    • Those suffering may experience the following harmful beliefs:
      • Gambler’s Fallacy: The Gambler’s Fallacy is the incorrect belief that if a particular event or outcome occurs more frequently than normal during the past it is less likely to happen in the future (or vice versa). In reality, the probability of such events/outcomes do not depend on events in the past.
      • Illusion of Control: An illusion of control occurs when a person believes that they control an outcome that is uncontrollable. In the context of gambling, gamblers believe they have special skills or knowledge that give them an advantage when gambling. (For example, using a specific slot machine will result in a win.)
      • Learn more about gambling terms such as randomness, odds and Gambler’s Fallacy in our Gambling Dictionary.

When is gambling a problem?

Gambling becomes a problem when you have trouble stopping.

Problem Gambling Signs

Gambling Myths

When it comes to gambling, we’re separating fact from fiction.

Common Myths about Gambling

Tips for safer gambling

Learn strategies for playing safe and reducing potential harms

Safer Gambling Tips