VII. Why do People Gamble?

Earlier sections of this report presented data on the growing popularity of gambling nationally, as well as in California. Given the popularity of gambling, this raises an obvious question: "Why do people gamble?" What is the major motivation for engaging in this activity? And why do some people gamble more than others and who are these people? Why do people gamble when it isn't a sure path to riches? As one researcher noted:1

"Yet the fact that empirical evidence strongly indicates that the best way of finishing up with a small fortune as a result of gambling is to start with a large fortune is played down."

Gambling is defined by the Webster's New World Dictionary as the following:

Various Theories Exist on Why People Gamble. There is a debate over whether the motivation to gamble is positive or negative. A common view is that gambling is negative. In particular, this view is common among religious groups.2 Others argue that the motivation is positive, that people enjoy gambling and it is usually a harmless diversion. Because people enjoy it they continue to gamble in spite of losing.3

Any discussion of the motivation of gambling usually starts with the natural comparison to life. Life is a gamble. Everyday, people are faced with situations which involve risk and chance.

Gambling activities are extensions of the risk and chance in life. The activity of gambling becomes play, it becomes a game. Gambling allows the person the choice of engaging in the activity, the amount of risk and, in many cases, the stakes. The stakes are a necessary element for many people. It turns the bet into not just an opinion but a commitment.

The concept of gambling mimicking the risk and chance of life has a parallel in the history section of this report. As noted in that portion, gambling was a popular activity during the gold mining era. Mining was a high-risk enterprise that required constant gambles by the participants. Considering that the people who accepted risk were drawn to mining, it is not surprising that gambling would become a popular leisure activity.

The fact that recreational gambling mimics life does not really help us determine why people gamble. If risk and chance are integral parts of life, why do some people seek out gambling activities and why are others content without it? Researchers have attempted to answer this question, but thus far no definitive answer has been found, but plenty of articles have been published.

Another way to determine why people gamble is to ask them. Why do people say they gamble? In a survey in Washington, those sampled reported that they gambled for fun, to win money, or they were looking for excitement and a challenge.4

Modern theories of gambling motivation are quite a change from some earlier theories. Early social scientists theorized that gambling was a way to deal with the pressures of industrialization. Karl Marx grouped it with religion as an opiate for the masses. Psychoanalysts had a different view. Sigmund Freud analyzed Fyodor Dostoyevsky's heavy gambling and diagnosed him as punishing himself for his oedipal urges.5

Different groups are more inclined to gamble than others. A review of several studies on demographic factors which relate to gambling behavior helps answer the question of who gambles the most. The following represents a synopsis of some of the research findings:6

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