Personality and Problem Behaviors Gambling

Greg Hogan, age 19, was president of his sophomore class at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and the son of a Baptist pastor. He played cello in the Lehigh orchestra, was a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, and acted as an assistant to the university chaplain. On Dec. 9, 2005, Hogan walked into the Wachovia Bank in Allentown, PA, and passed a note to the teller, saying he was armed and wanted money. He walked out with $2,871. He then went to a movie, The Chronicles of Narnia, with two friends. Later that day, while preparing to go to rehearsal with his university orchestra, seven police cars surrounded his fraternity house. Greg Hogan never made it to rehearsal that evening. Instead, he was charged with bank robbery, arrested, and taken away in handcuffs. If convicted, he faces up to five years in jail.

Greg Hogan had run up over $5,000 in gambling debt, mostly at Internet gambling sites. Due to his gambling compulsion, he was in a desperate, but not unique, situation. A study done by PokerPlus.com estimates that more than 1.8 million people play online poker each month, wagering an average total of $200 million a day. Considering all forms of card gambling, more than 3 million students a week engage in gambling for money, according to the National Council on Problem Gambling estimates. This study also estimates that, out of every 10 college students who play poker regularly, two will develop an addiction. Of these gambling addicts, about 80 percent will commit a crime to fund their gambling debt. Many will contemplate suicide as a way out of their situation.

On Dec. 14, 2005, in a follow-up to the Greg Hogan story in the Lehigh student newspaper, The Brown and White, a re porter described the prevalence of gambling among Lehigh students. The story is probably similar at other universities. Several of the Lehigh fraternities have hosted gambling parties for years, but lately the gambling parties are more frequent and the stakes are higher: $40 to get into a poker game, with pots typically rising to $500 and higher. Internet gambling is rampant, especially among the male Lehigh students.

The story describes Andrew, a student who bets on sports games over the Internet. Andrew often skips classes to watch sporting events he has bet on, and ignores homework in order to spend time juggling accounts on various betting sites. Like many students, Andrew also spends a vast amount of time playing online poker. On Nov. 6 he was up $250, but only briefly; he quickly lost that and more with continued gambling.

"I just have an addictive personality," Andrew says.

Is there any evidence for an "addictive personality"? Are certain people more prone than others to get hooked on gambling? Before answering this question, we briefly review the scope of the gambling problem in the United States. Pathological gambling

For some people playing cards is a form of recreation. For others, however, it can result in compulsive gambling.

disorder (PGD) is characterized by gambling behavior that is persistent over time and that causes significant problems in the person's life, such as with family members, or at school or work. The diagnosis of PGD is made when at least 5 out of 10 criteria are present (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). These criteria include a preoccupation with or inability to control or stop gambling, the need to gamble more often or to make larger bets to obtain a level of excitement, continuing to gamble despite problems, lying to conceal gambling involvement, committing illegal acts to obtain gambling money, "withdrawal" symptoms of restlessness irritability when unable to gamble, and gambling to escape negative moods. These criteria look very similar to criteria for drug and alcohol addictions.

Other gambling specific criteria include "chasing losses" (i.e., continuing to bet in an attempt to recover losses) and relying on others for financial help following gambling losses.

Studies in the United States report that the proportion of the population that will be diagnosable with PGD at some point in their lifetime is between 1 percent and 2.5 percent, with more recent studies obtaining percentages in the higher ranges (Cunningham-Williams et al., 2004). Problem gambling can be defined as meeting between 1 and 4 of the above criteria. The rate of problem gambling in the United States is 12.4 percent. However, 42 percent of the population has never or rarely (less than 5 times) gambled. So, if we take the 58 percent of Americans who do gamble at least recreationally, of these 4.3 percent will develop PGD and 21 percent will develop some problems with gambling (Cunningham-Williams et al., 2004). If all you know about someone is that they regularly gamble, then that person has at least a 4 percent chance of having PGD and a 21 percent chance of developing problems from gambling.

Pathological gambling behavior often co-occurs with other addictions, including nicotine dependence, ca nna bis use, drug addiction, and alcohol dependence (Slutske et al., 2000). In fact, persons with pathological or problem gambling are 2 to 4 times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than nongamblers. This is an example of comorbidity, where two or more disorders simultaneously occur within the same individual.

We return now to the question of whether any specific personality traits are associated with problem gambling. Several correlational studies have found that measures of impulsiveness and sensation seeking correlate with problem gambling (McDaniel & Zuckerman, 2003; Vitaro, Arsenault, & Tremblay, 1997). From correlational data, we don't really know if the personality traits are causing the gambling, or if gambling is causing people to become more impulsive and sensation seeking. In a recent longitudinal study, however, the psychologist Wendy Slutske and her colleagues (2006) found that problem gambling at age 21 was associated with the personality traits of risk taking and impulsivity at age 18. This study strengthens the conclusion that the personality traits of high impulsivity and risk taking (or sensation seeking) put a person at risk for developing problem gambling. Risk taking is a trait that refers to the desire for novelty, for thrills and excitement, and for experiences that provide a good deal of excitement. Impulsivity is a trait that refers to lowered self-control, especially in the presence of potentially rewarding fun activities, the tendency to act before one thinks, and a lowered ability to anticipate the consequences of one's behavior. These two traits also are associated with the risk of developing alcohol, drug, and nicotine dependence (Slutske et al., 2006).

Genetic studies suggest that the risk for developing problem gambling and the risk for developing other addictions (e.g., alcohol) may be explained by largely overlapping genetic risk factors. These genetic factors may give rise to the specific personality traits related to low behavioral control (impulsivity and risk taking), and these traits may in turn be responsible for the comorbidity of pathological gambling and other addictive disorders.

The Iowa Gambling Task is a laboratory procedure developed to study impulsivity and insensitivity to consequences. In this task, the subject is confronted with various decks of cards, from which they can choose. Some of the decks have very high initial rewards but also high punishments, such that over time the person drawing from these decks would lose money. Other decks have lower initial rewards, but also lower and less frequent punishments, such that if choices were made from these decks, the person would ultimately win money. Most people pick up on the pattern and learn to avoid the risky decks and select from the safer decks (less rewarding but also fewer losses). People with high levels of impulsive sensation seeking (Crone, Vende, & van der Molen, 2002), as well as people with alcohol and drug addictions (Bechara et al., 2001), often stay with the riskier decks and end up losing money. Interestingly, people with specific damage to their brains (in the region of the prefrontal cortex) also will stick with the riskier decks and not learn to avoid the frequent losses that come with the infrequent gains (Bechara, Tranel, & Damasio, 2000). Studies of age changes in the Iowa Gambling Task show that performance continues to improve through adolescence, consistent with findings that the prefrontal cortex continues to develop through adolescence (Hooper, Luciann, Conklin, & Yarger, 2004). By implication, adolescence is not a time one should be experimenting with gambling, since the brain centers that help one appreciate consequences are still developing.

In summary, even casual or recreational gambling can reach problem proportions for certain individuals. The personality traits of impulsivity and sensation seeking appear to put people at risk for developing gambling problems. Moreover, these traits also put people at risk for developing other addictions, such a s a lcohol, nicotine, a nd drug dependence. It may be that both the personality traits and addictive behaviors are expressions of a common genetic pathway. Moreover, this pathway may also be expressed in a specific brain area—the prefrontal cortex—that has been associated with the ability to anticipate consequences and to engage in self-regulation.

Illustration of a synapse, the junction between two nerve cells. Synapses transmit electrical signals from one nerve cell to the next. When an electrical signal reaches a synapse it triggers the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters (red) from vesicles (pink). The vesicles burst through the membrane, and neurotransmitters cross a microscopic gap called the synaptic cleft and bind to the receptor nerve cell, causing it to propagate an electrical impulse.

Illustration of a synapse, the junction between two nerve cells. Synapses transmit electrical signals from one nerve cell to the next. When an electrical signal reaches a synapse it triggers the release of chemicals called neurotransmitters (red) from vesicles (pink). The vesicles burst through the membrane, and neurotransmitters cross a microscopic gap called the synaptic cleft and bind to the receptor nerve cell, causing it to propagate an electrical impulse.

number of sex partners, engaging in a wider variety of sex acts, and beginning to have sex at an earlier age than low sensation seekers. The list of correlates of sensation seeking is quite long, and you may consult various reviews to learn more about this personality trait (e.g., Zuckerman, 1984, 1991).

According to Zuckerman, there is a physiological basis for sensation-seeking behavior. Zuckerman's more recent work (1991) focuses primarily on the role played by neurotransmitters in bringing about differences in sensation seeking. Neurotransmitters are chemicals in the nerve cells that are responsible for the transmission of a nerve impulse from one cell to another . As you may recall from your introductory psychology class, nerve cells are separated from one another by a slight gap, called a synapse. A nerve impulse must jump across this gap if it is to continue toward its destination. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals released by the nerves that allow nerve impulses to jump across the synapse and continue on their way .

The neurotransmitter must be broken down after the impulse has passed, or too many nerve transmissions would occur. As an analogy , think of the turnstyle at a movie theater or subway, which lets in one person at a time. If it were left open, many people could run through, allowing too many people in. If it were stuck closed, however, no one could get through. The neurotransmitter system is similar in that the chemical balance in the synapse has to be just right in order for the correct amount of nervous transmission to get through and continue on.

Certain enzymes, particularly monoamine oxidase (MAO), are responsible for maintaining the proper levels of neurotransmitters. MAO works by breaking down the neu-rotransmitter after it has allowed a nerve impulse to pass. If an excessive amount of MAO were present, it would break down too much of the neurotransmitter , and nerve transmission would be diminished. If there were too little MAO present, an excessive amount of the neurotransmitter would be left in the synapse, allowing for too much nervous transmission to take place. Suppose that you had to do a fin movement with your fingers, such as pick up a dime o f a flat surface. With too little MAO in your system, your finger might be shaking and your movements jerky (too much nervous transmission). With too much MAO, however, your fingers might be clumsy because of dulled sensation an lethargic movement control. When MAO levels are just right, neurotransmitter levels are regulated appropriately and the nervous system works properly to control the muscles, thoughts, and emotions.

High sensation seekers tend to have low levels of MAO in their bloodstream, compared with low sensation seekers. Across studies, the correlation tends to be small to moderate but is consistently negative (Zuckerman, 1991). If high sensation seekers tend to have low MAO levels, and low MAO means more neurotransmitter available in the nerve cells, then perhaps sensation seeking is caused by or is maintained by having high levels of neurotransmitters in the nervous system. MAO acts like the brakes of the nervous system, by decomposing neurotransmitters and thereby inhibiting neurotransmission. With low MAO levels, sensation seekers have less inhibition in their nervous systems and therefore less control over behavior, thoughts, and emotions. According to Zuckerman's (1991) theory and research, sensation-seeking behaviors (e.g., illicit sex, drug use, wild parties) are due not to seeking an optimal level of arousal but to having too little of the biochemical brakes in the synapse.

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