Gambling is any activity that involves risking something of value, such as money or goods and services, for a chance to win a prize. This can happen with any game of chance, including lotteries, bingo, dice, cards, horse races and sporting events. It can also occur when someone invests money or something of value in a business venture or other event that has a significant amount of risk and the potential to yield large gains. This activity can be dangerous if it is done compulsively, and can lead to financial loss, depression, anxiety and other mental health problems.

The underlying causes of problematic gambling are complex and multifaceted. It is important to recognize the signs of gambling problems, which include:

Using gambling products that are designed to keep people playing (e.g., slot machines and scratch tickets) can contribute to problem gambling. In addition, underlying mood disorders such as anxiety and depression can trigger gambling problems or make them worse.

Other factors that can contribute to gambling problems include:

Genetics: Some individuals are predisposed to addictive behaviour. Research shows that certain genetic variants can affect the brain regions involved in processing reward information, controlling impulses and weighing risk. It has been found that some people are genetically more likely to be impulsive and more easily influenced by rewards, while others have an underactive brain reward system. These differences may influence how they experience the pleasure of winning and losing, and their risk tolerance.

Culture: Some communities may consider gambling as a normal pastime, which can make it difficult to recognize that there is a problem. This can also make it harder to get help when needed because the person is not being judged by a neutral third party.

Longitudinal studies of gambling are rare, due to a number of barriers. For example, it is expensive to fund a longitudinal study with a large number of participants over a period of years; there are difficulties in maintaining research team continuity and sample attrition; and it can be difficult to separate the effects of gambling from other life changes.

Whether it’s buying a lottery ticket, betting on the horses or sports, or using the pokies at a casino, most people gamble at some point in their lives. While most people enjoy gambling, some do it compulsively and are at risk of developing a serious problem. A subset of those who have gambled regularly has developed a pathological gambling disorder, which is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a persistent and recurrent maladaptive pattern of behaviour that results in distress or impairment.

People who are more susceptible to develop a pathological gambling disorder include those with low incomes, young people and men. They also tend to have more difficulty with nonstrategic and less interpersonally interactive forms of gambling, such as scratch tickets or slot machines. Some people, such as those who have a family history of gambling disorder, may develop the problem in early adulthood.