Where I live (New York State), if you want to gamble, you can go to the Yonkers raceway, or you can go to your local store and buy scratch off numbers for a lottery, or you can take a trip to the casinos in neighboring Connecticut and New Jersey. Come to think of it, to gamble, you don’t even have to leave your computer.
Though lotteries were illegal in the U.S. in 1900, the lure of getting easy money has persuaded many states to create lotteries.
Easily available gambling does create more gambling addicts, than would exist otherwise according to the book The Compass Of Pleasure by neuroscientist David Linden. Gambling addiction is a terrible thing. David Linden quotes Bill Lee’s book Born To Lose to show the effect of gambling on one family. Bill Lee’s grandfather sold his father to another family in China to cover a gambling debt. Lee’s father emigrated to the US, where he also gambled compulsively. Lee himself cut class (in elementary school) to gamble for coins or baseball cards, often losing everything. By high school he was playing poker and running afoul of loan sharks. But he was successful in his studies, and ended up getting well-paying jobs in Silicon Valley. He married and had a son. But as his career advanced, he would gamble more and more, for instance, after his work day was over, he would drive four hours to the Nevada casinos to play blackjack, and then drive back half asleep on icy mountain roads to start work the next morning. This recklessness contributed to the end of his marriage and a subsequent bitter custody battle for his son. As the custody for his son got contentious, the urges to gamble got stronger. Within a few years Lee was utterly bankrupt, having gambled away his life savings and his home. He got married again, but gambling destroyed that marriage too. He describes the urge: “My urge to gamble left my entire body feeling like one big mosquito bite, and no amount of willpower would have been able to stop me from scratching myself”.
David Linden says that “At the biological level there is now reason to believe that a broad definition of addiction–one that encompasses drugs, sex, food, gambling, video games, and some other compulsions–is valid…The developing story is that activation and then alteration of the medial forebrain pleasure circuit is the heart of all these addictions.” However he also says that about a third of gambling addicts can break their addiction without outside help, which is something that rarely happens with drug addiction, and he also says that most people can gamble occasionally without this behavior becoming compulsive and ruining their lives. He also points out that we all have food, and most have sex, yet most of us don’t become food or sex addicts. Even most people who use cocaine don’t become addicts.
Both nature and nurture play a role in addiction. Some people simply have different biology than most of us. Often several addictions go together “Anyone who has spent even a little time in a casino has seen that nicotine addiction, alcoholism, and compulsive gambling are often concurrent, reflecting a common underlying disorder of the dopamine-using pleasure circuit.”
The attempted suicide rate for gambling addicts is high – for instance it was found to be about 40 percent for a group of men in a residential treatment program for gambling addicts run by the U.S. veterans Administration. Perhaps this is because of their debts, (in fact many gamblers go into crime to cover their losses).
This raises a question. We generally see eating food, or gambling or sex, as voluntary behaviors. But once dopamine circuits (or other circuits) are altered, is it just a question of a little more will-power required to counter them? Bill Lee said no amount of willpower would have worked. (though he did succeed to stop eventually with the help of Gamblers Anonymous).
This is what David Linden says about another type of addiction:
Sex addiction is very real, and it takes a terrible toll. Sex addicts have the same trajectory as other addicts. They develop the same tolerance to the behavior, whereby more and more sex is necessary for achieving pleasure. Sex addicts have physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms if they can’t get the sex they need…Finally, like other addicts, [they] feel strong cravings when they try to quit their compulsive behavior, and they repeatedly fall off the wagon…One can be a drug addict, and alcoholic, or a food addict and..it’s possible to inflict pain mostly on yourself. By comparison, sex addicts by definition use other people and inevitably leave a wide swath of emotional destruction in their wake, severely testing the limits of compassion.”
He says that like other addictions, sex addiction becomes a “wanting” rather than a “liking”, “The sex that used to be a transcendent and energizing pleasure is now simply a necessary fix to face the day.”
Another recent book says that this is just an excuse, and “sex addiction” used to be called “sin” and probably still should be. Thinking of this kind of behavior as addiction does open a can of worms – when can you hold a person responsible for his actions?
I’m interested in these types of addictions, because I was diagnosed as a “bulimic” for a while. I described it to a psychiatrist this way “Despite overeating, I would pass a bakery, and feel the urge to go in and buy muffins, and then I’d eat them right there in front of the customers. I tried to stop this excessive behavior by not carrying money with me, or if I had to carry money I would mail the change home as soon as I had purchased whatever I needed.”
But it occurred to me that this behavior had limits. If the bakery was closed, for instance, I would not break the glass to get in. It’s as if my subconscious did a calculation of costs before pushing me toward food.
I was also a sex addict for three years, in that I wanted to stop, but could not. And yet when it resulted in huge public stress and humiliation, somehow it dawned in the recesses of my brain that I should stop, and I did stop. I shook all over, but I did stop.
One day I sat by a train station and struck up a conversation with a man sitting there. He had been an alcoholic, and he had just gotten through months at a Christian rehab center. He was going to visit his wife, who had already drawn up the divorce papers in his absence, and he was going to see his daughter as well. He did not think his wife would now want to reconcile with what she remembered as an “angry drunk”. I mentioned that President George W Bush had said that if he had not stopped drinking, then he would not have been president, but would have ended up in a bar somewhere. The man said yes, the lure of alcohol was evil. (Though I should say that Bush was not an alcoholic, he was just a daily drinker and had been arrested for drunk driving, and I should also say that I can’t find backup for the quote by him).
Personally, I think that if a person has been a “pig” (as I’ve been called) but straightens out his act, and leads a decent life from then on, then we should accept him. If someone descends into a cesspool of sex, or destroys his body with alcohol, or his marriage with gambling, we should keep the behaviors in proportion – evil behavior is worse than swinish behavior. But I also think that where there are enablers of the swinish or self-destructive behavior they should be held to account.
The Compass of Pleasure by David Linden (2011)