The term gambling is used to describe any activity where a person places something of value (money) on a random event with the intention of winning something else of value. This typically includes betting on sporting events, games of chance, the lottery or scratchcards. Gambling involves risk and uncertainty, and this is likely to be a key factor in its appeal. Like activities such as eating, sex and drug use, gambling triggers the brain’s reward centre to release dopamine. This neurotransmitter is released in anticipation of a potential reward and may explain why people continue to gamble even when it negatively affects their health, finances, work and relationships.
Often, people who gamble do so for social reasons – perhaps they enjoy spending time with friends at casinos or the track, or they buy lottery tickets as a group, hoping to win together. In addition, some people find pleasure in thinking about what they would do with a jackpot win, or in fantasizing about the different ways they might spend their money.
In the past, researchers have tended to focus on the economic costs and benefits of gambling, rather than its social impacts. However, in recent years there has been an increased interest in longitudinal research on gambling, which is a valuable tool for identifying factors that moderate and exaggerate the effects of the activity. A longitudinal study involves following a sample of people over an extended period of time, which allows for the identification of changes in gambling behaviour and provides evidence on causality.