Psychology Behind Gambling: What Motivates People To Play?

casino gambling games

We all know, numerous individuals love gambling, with some turning it into a long-time hobby or profession with games like poker or sports betting. But, what drives people to continue playing? How does the brain respond to gambling in a way that motivates people to commit to such a hobby? In this article, we’ll tell you all about it. 


Many people think that habitual gambling is brought on by the desire for financial gain. As with any compulsive behavior, mesolimbic dopamine, which is the primary neuromodulator of incentive motivation, is released during episodes of gambling. Dopamine, after all, is the chemical in your brain which enables you to experience joy, gratification, and motivation once it’s released. Just like you need to prepare your body before a workout, your brain prepares itself for activities such as gambling, and by doing so, dopamine is released. Recent research, however, indicates that the relationship between dopamine and reward is not as simple as one may believe. 

Dopamine appears to be more reflective of the unpredictable nature of reward than the actual winning itself. This implies that one’s uncertainty when gambling has a significant impact on their motivation to gamble. Below, we’ll discuss several factors which dopamine and gambling go hand in hand with, and further explain its role in uncertainty.

Traditional Perspective: Gambling Is Driven By Money

We may somewhat agree with common sense when it states that many people enjoy gambling, as it gives them a chance to win money in an enjoyable way. Gambling online is currently more popular than it has ever been, with websites offering a wide variety of options including casino games, sports betting, poker, and many more (Source:

Obviously, a “big win” is less common than many people would wish, but since casino games are labelled as games of chance and big winners are frequently publicized, many people choose to test their luck and have faith in the likelihood that they might win big. So, conforming to the traditional belief, a gambler’s main motivation is money.

The fact that dopamine is released in the nucleus accumbens, a mesolimbic region of the brain which amplifies the attractiveness of rewards and conditioned cues, is also consistent with this perspective. Dopamine, in other words, turns natural cues into conditioned cues when a person anticipates reward delivery.  Money is undoubtedly a strongly conditioned cue, as it’s associated with abundance and power in today’s society.

The Attractiveness Of Losses

Although the standard theory we mentioned above is supported by neuroscientific research, which utilizes neuroscience, it is unable to explain why many people describe gambling as a fun pastime rather than an opportunity to win money. The more they lose money, the more they are inclined to continue this behavior. In the gambling industry, this is also known as chasing losses.

It is difficult to pinpoint when subjective emotions first appear or how losses increase a gambler’s desire to play because many emotions and cognitions frequently overlap. However, scientists were able to track the release of dopamine in gamblers as they won and lost money. 

During losses, dopamine release in the ventral striatum was observed. Dopamine’s motivating effects, according to studies, may help to explain why gamblers chase their losses.  So, certainly, “near misses” increase gambling motivation and activate the brain reward circuit more so than “big wins” do.  The fact that monetary losses have a limited impact on how much probability is discounted in humans when compared to gains may be related to this phenomenon. 

This suggests that a lower probability (along with a prolonged delay) decreases a gambler’s motivation less than when losses are involved when compared to gains. The big win theory, on the other hand, contends that pathological gambling arises in those who initially enjoyed significant financial wins but fail to show this effect on gambling persistence. Therefore, current data implies that losses encourage gambling more so than winnings do.

The Uncertainty 

The significance of reward uncertainty could be one of the most important underlying causes of the phenomena of chasing losses. The same way that you never know whether you’ll win or lose, you also never know if you’ll win by double digits or triple digits. 

Emotions While Gambling

Reward uncertainty, as opposed to the actual reward, has been proven in studies to increase dopamine in both healthy humans and monkeys. The results of electrophysiological and neuroimaging approaches suggest that dopamine is essential for the coding of reward uncertainty, even though non-dopaminergic neurons may be implicated in the coding of reward uncertainty. 

Numerous behavioral experiments have demonstrated this phenomenon, showing that mammals and birds react more strongly to conditioned stimuli that predict uncertain rewards. The award-winning game designer, Greg Costikyan, claims that without uncertainty, games are unable to keep our attention. With odds of winning that are close to 50%, dice, roulette, and slot machines are projected to produce the most dopamine, which encourages players to keep gambling.

The rising trends that include longer play at video poker or slot machines provide evidence that uncertainty seems to be the primary source of motivation. Instead of playing to win, many just play to experience the game. 

Monetary gains are intended to enable players to play for longer periods of time, rather than as a means of achieving the game’s primary goal. It’s all about the excitement of finding out. Recent studies have shown that adult rats which experience initial conditioned cues that anticipate highly uncertain rewards become sensitized to responding to those cues in the long run, despite a steady decrease in the amount of uncertainty. Following a subsequent exposure to significant uncertainty, no behavioral sensitization was visible. 

These results are consistent with research suggesting that those who experience unpredictable environments and gambling circumstances early in life are more prone to engage in persistent gambling behavior.