The Psychological Effects of Sports Betting on the Brain

More than three decades’ worth of intensive research, clinical studies, and trials have revealed illuminating data about the psychological effects that gambling has on the brain. Clinicians have debated the criteria and classifications that define problematic behaviors associated with all forms of gambling, including sports betting.

As a result of incontestable clinical data, several critical terminologies, criteria, and classification were updated and published in the American Psychiatric Association’s publication, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), available in 2013.

In a landmark decision, these changes viewed extreme problematic behavior involving gambling as an addiction instead of the former erroneous classification of impulse-control disorder.

Clinical tests highlighted that brain scans of subjects diagnosed with Gambling Disorder are strikingly similar to those addicted to drugs. Furthermore, research has identified that neurotransmitter systems are affected when gambling.

The Truth About Betting

As sports betting is considered a form of gambling, bettors should be aware that online sportsbooks operate in the same fashion as online casinos and that there is always an element of risk involved with wagering. Both institutions operate to turn a profit. Each institution has the tools and frameworks to maximize its profits, and that the house edge factors into the available betting odds. Those opposed to gambling may question why do gamblers always lose? In reality, gamblers win on occasion, although it is not uncommon for bettors to expend more money than they generate.

Naturally, there are short-term strategies deemed successful by bettors, but less so as long-term solutions. Skill-based betting, such as sports betting, offers numerous chances for knowledgeable bettors to win their wagers. However, sports betting experts have deduced that only a few viable strategies such as Proportional Betting and Fixed Amount Betting are effective. Each sport has its own set of strategies, which bettors can also incorporate into the strategies mentioned above.

When wagering, bettors should have a stringent money management/bankroll management system to avoid chasing losses and only spend what they are willing to lose. Prudent bettors consult various online betting sites to find the best value for a particular wager as the odds on different sites fluctuate depending on their sports traders’ analysis.

However, it is vital to note that the truth about gambling is that placing successful wagers on sports is never guaranteed, even if a wager has favorable odds of winning.

The Science of Sports Gambling 

When subjects gamble, various neurotransmitter systems are affected within the brain, with prominent neurotransmitters, dopamine, and serotonin released during the act of betting. These reward systems affect the brain throughout the gambling process, including both wins and losses that a bettor may experience during gameplay. As a result, some subjects may pursue the thrill of gambling in an attempt to experience the rush of feel-good chemicals at the cost of their financial and mental wellbeing.

The science of gambling and psychological response to the deed reveals that problematic gambling behavior may develop in response to comorbidity and the biochemical, neural, and genetic predispositions a subject may have.

The distinction between two key phrases that pertain to problematic gambling behavior needs clarification before moving forward.

Before the release of DSM-5, the standard classifications dealing with gambling-related mental issues highlighted two diagnoses that are now outdated. They were ‘Gambling Addiction’ and ‘Pathological Gambling’ – these diagnoses have been amended and should now be referred to as Problem Gambling and Gambling Disorder, respectively.

Problem Gambling (formerly known as Gambling Addiction) is a sub-threshold diagnosis of Gambling Disorder. In simple terms, Problem Gambling does not meet all of the criteria as set out for Gambling Disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). However, subjects displaying up to three of the criteria to determine if the mental illness, Gambling Disorder is present are diagnosed with Problem Gambling.

Effects of Gambling on The Brain

Gambling takes the role of entertainment, and it is quite common that gamblers experience euphoria while gambling. For most gamblers and bettors, the rush passes while others actively pursue, obsess, and crave the chemical release associated with gambling and betting.

Extensive research about betting psychology discovered that neurotransmitter systems activate during gambling, including serotonergic, noradrenergic, dopaminergic, opioidergic, and glutamatergic. These neurotransmitter systems are associated with substance addictions (Potenza, 2001).

Dr. Charles O’Brien, chair of the Substance-Related Disorders Work Group for DSM-5, revealed that brain imaging studies and neurochemical tests made a “strong case that [gambling] activates the reward system in much the same way that a drug does.”

Subjects that met several of the nine Gambling Disorder criteria indicated that they experienced cravings, withdrawal symptoms, and physical symptoms such as accelerated heartbeat, nausea, and sweaty palms. Reports also indicate that subjects develop a betting tolerance due to the over-stimulation of neurotransmitter systems resulting in subjects placing high-risk and high-stake wagers to activate said systems.  

According to a 2018 survey, two-thirds of gamblers observed that their mental health suffered due to their gambling behavior. Furthermore, individuals diagnosed with Gambling Addiction’s more severe form, namely Gambling Disorder, frequently experienced comorbidity along with their diagnosis.

The survey revealed that subjects with Gambling Disorder experienced the following comorbidities:

  •       60% have a personality disorder
  •       50% have had suicidal thoughts
  •       49% also have a mood disorder
  •       41% also have an anxiety disorder
  •       17% have attempted suicide

Is Gambling Addiction a Mental Illness?

The simple answer to this question is no, but it is more technical as described below:

Despite the inclusion of the word ‘addiction,’ which is now immaterial, this particular diagnosis is not, strictly speaking, an addiction in the conventional sense as it does not meet the criteria of a mental illness such as Gambling Disorder. Gambling Addiction is a less severe form of Gambling Disorder, with the latter requiring a subject to exhibit at least four or more out of nine criteria.

Subjects diagnosed with Gambling Addiction (Problem Gaming) display specific characteristics prevalent in those suffering from alcohol and drug dependence, such as behavioral, psychological, and physiological characteristics.

After researchers and clinicians observed a high percentage of subjects displaying only a few of these nine criteria, a call for the acceptance of subclinical Pathological Gambling was made, with the diagnosis identified as Gambling Addiction.

A Gambling Addiction diagnosis requires one to three of the following symptoms to be exhibited by an individual in a timeframe of at least 12 months:

1. Preoccupation. A bettor is often obsessed with gambling – this includes planning the next gambling experience, strategizing ways to fund gambling behavior, and reliving past gambling experiences, whether positive or negative.

2. Withdrawal. A bettor displays restless behavior or irritability when attempting to curb gambling behavior.

3. Tolerance. A bettor requires high-risk and high-stakes wagers to activate neurotransmitter systems.

4. Escape. A bettor reverts to gambling as a coping mechanism.

5. Chasing. A bettor habitually attempts to win back losses by gambling even more. It is not uncommon for gamblers to chase for short amounts of time, although long-term chasing could signal a gambling problem.

6. Lying. An individual lies to hide the extent of their gambling involvement.

7. Loss of control. A better repeatedly attempts to control, cut back, or stop gambling, albeit unsuccessfully.

8. Risked significant relationship. A bettor risks the loss of career or educational opportunities and significant relationships at the cost of gambling behavior.

9. Bailout. A bettor experiences financial difficulties and relies on friends and family to relieve the dire situation caused by gambling behavior.


The psychological effects of sports betting on the brain are numerous, with some bettors unable to control their gambling behavior due to various issues.

Online sports betting sites now offer very insightful resources to avoid Gambling Addiction and get help from different treatment centers. Players and bettors should not hesitate to avail of any information relating to Problem Gambling and compulsive betting or to consult professional help for assistance.