Why gambling is so popular and so addictive

Reading Time: 4 minutes

This week, the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that prohibits sports gambling. The landmark decision gives states the right to legalize betting on sports.

New Jersey plans to be the first state to offer legal wagering on the results of a game. Delaware, Mississippi, New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia are expected to follow suit.

My purpose today is not to debate the legalities of sports gambling. Rather, it is to focus on gambling in the context of biblical truth and God’s best for us.

The promise and power of gambling

According to the American Gaming Association, gambling in the US is a $240 billion industry employing 1.7 million people in forty states. Why is gambling so popular?

The former Director of Gaming Enforcement for the state of New Jersey told a conference that the success of Atlantic City was tied to how well it sold its “only products.” He explained:

“That product is not entertainment or recreation or leisure. It’s really adrenaline: a biological substance capable of producing excitement–highs generated usually by anticipation or expectation of a future event, especially when the outcome of that event is in doubt.”

According to a chief regulator of the industry, gambling is not only a drug, but a mind-altering drug. One author calls it a “controlled substance.”

Psychologists offer several reasons for the popularity of gambling in our culture:

• It provides a sense of partial reinforcement we crave. “I’ll get lucky next time” is a powerful lure.
• Some fall for the “gambler’s fallacy” of believing that a string of losses makes a win more likely.
• The illusion of control causes many gamblers to believe that they have some power over the outcome (whether picking numbers in a lottery or blowing on dice before throwing them).
• Loss aversion is a major motivator: we feel more pain over losing $100 than joy over winning $100. When a gambler loses money, he or she is motivated to keep gambling so as to recover what has been lost.

Solomon observed, “Those who work their land will have abundant food, but those who chase fantasies will have their fill of poverty” (Proverbs 28:19 NIV). He added, “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 5:10 NIV).

Paul warned that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils” (1 Timothy 6:10).

The plague of addictive gambling

As many as 750,000 young people have a gambling addiction. People between the ages of twenty and thirty have the highest rates of problem gambling (defined as “an urge to gamble continuously despite harmful negative consequences or a desire to stop”).

People who abuse alcohol are twenty-three times more likely to develop a gambling addiction. An estimated 50 percent of those with gambling problems commit crimes to support their addiction.

According to the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery, there is evidence that pathological gambling is an addiction similar to chemical addiction. Winning at gambling has been compared neurologically to a cocaine addict receiving an infusion of the drug.

Those who are pathological gamblers are highly likely to exhibit other psychiatric problems, including substance abuse, mood and anxiety disorders, or personality disorders.

Problem gambling has also been linked to increased suicide attempts. A report in the US by the National Council on Problem Gambling showed that approximately one in five pathological gamblers attempts suicide. The council also reported that suicide rates among pathological gamblers were higher than for any other addictive disorder.

Step-based treatment programs now exist for problem gamblers. Anti-addiction drugs are being tested on gambling addicts as well.

Responding to addictive gambling

Does the possibility of gambling addiction mean that all gambling is wrong?

Many substances and activities can become addictive. The fact that some people are addicted to their cell phones does not mean that cell phones should be illegal.

But it does mean that you should absolutely know your limits and be aware of any inclination toward gambling addiction. This online test is one way to determine whether you have a problem or not.

Scripture teaches, “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18 NIV). This text does not mean that no one should ever drink alcohol. But it does mean that no one should ever get drunk. Then alcohol becomes the primary determiner of our actions rather than the Holy Spirit.

The same principle applies to any substance or activity, gambling included. If gambling rather than the Spirit is controlling your life, stop and get help now.

The basic temptation in life

The first temptation in human history was to “be like God” (Genesis 3:5). This is still the basic temptation in all of life.

Think about the last sin you committed. At its root, was it not a desire to do what you wanted rather than what God wanted? Was it not a decision to be your own God?

Gambling, whether legalized betting on sports or any other form of wagering, can become a powerful drug. It can easily become addictive and lead to other destructive behaviors. And it can deceive us into believing the lie that we are in charge of our circumstances and our lives.

Only the gambler knows if he or she is wagering for fun or from an insidious motive. Thomas Watson was right: “Sin has the devil for its father, shame for its companion, and death for its wages.”

Every time.