Gambling addicts’ impulsive behaviour may be ingrained in their DNA, a study has suggested.
Psychologists from the University of British Colombia, Canada, have found siblings of problem gamblers show a similar propensity to take risks.
The findings suggest endless hours in casinos do not cultivate impulsive and risk-taking traits, but rather they are already in your genes.
But the team said the causes of gambling could also stem from one’s upbringing, which siblings too both have in common.
Psychologists from the University of British Colombia, Canada, have found that siblings of problem gamblers show a similar propensity to take risks if put into a slot machine-type environment (file photo)
Dr Eve Limbrick-Oldfield and team set out to solve the ‘chicken or the egg’ mystery of whether problem addiction is a cause or effect of gambling.
She said: ‘Impulsivity, risky decision-making and altered brain reward processing are observed in people with gambling disorder.
‘We wanted to find out whether these markers represent pre-existing vulnerabilities or are a consequence of how gambling changes the brain.
‘To test this, we studied gamblers’ siblings since they share similar genetic material and environment.’
Twenty addicts from the National Problem Gambling Clinic in London with willing siblings were recruited to participate in the study.
They were asked to complete tests that were designed to measure their risk-taking, impulsiveness and response to receiving rewards.
Findings suggest that endless hours in bookies and casinos does not cultivate impulsive and risk-taking traits, but rather they are already in your genes
First, participants filled out a questionnaire to assess their urgency, premeditation, perseverance, sensation seeking, and positive urgency.
Next, they took another quiz which determined how prone they were to taking short-term gains even if it meant losing out on a greater benefit in the future.
An example of one question they were asked would be: ‘Would you prefer £19 today, or £25 in 53 days?’
The participants then completed two computer exercises known as the Stop Signal Task – to measure motor impulsiveness – and the Cambridge Gamble Task which determines decision-making under risk.
In the Stop Signal Task, participants must hit whichever button a light-up arrow points to.
But if a horn sounds when the arrow lights up, they must refrain from pressing the button.
The tests to measure risk-taking and impulsiveness
Stop Signal Task – impulsiveness
The participant is faced with two buttons and a light-up arrow in between them.
As soon as the arrow points to one of the buttons, they must press it.
However, if the arrow lights up and there is a beeping noise, they must refrain from pressing it.
Cambridge Gambling Task – Risk-taking
The participant is presented with ten blue and red boxes across the top of a computer screen.
The ratio of red to blue boxes will vary, but there will always be one box containing a yellow token.
Participants must choose the box colour in which they think the token is hidden.
A circle in the centre of the screen displays the current bet value, which will either increase or decrease.
Participants press this button when it shows the proportion of their score they would like to bet.
These points will either be added or taken away to their total score, depending on their decision and where the token is actually hidden.
The Cambridge Gamble task is similar to the hit TV show Deal Or No Deal and sees participants guess which box a prize is hidden in, risking their existing points if they decide to open one of the boxes.
Finally, the participants’ receptiveness to receiving rewards on a slot machine-type task was also measured using an MRI scan.
The results of these exercises were then compared to a control group, to see if the siblings exhibited different behaviour.
Both the problem gamblers and the siblings took more risks and displayed more impulsiveness, compared to the control group.
But the MRI scan showed their was no major shift in the siblings’ brain behaviour in response to rewards, when contrasted with the control group.
The researchers noted that siblings of problem gamblers were particularly difficult to recruit for the study because family relationships are often strained as a consequence of gambling problems.
Therefore, the sample size for the study published in the Neuropsychopharmacology journal, was particularly small.
While they suggested that risk-taking and impulsive behaviour could be in problem gamblers’ genes, they also cautioned that this may not be the sole cause.
The environment the addict grew up in – an experience shared with their sibling – could also cultivate these traits.
However, they do point to studies which have found that more or less powerful dopamine and serotonin receptors – neurotransmitters which create a pleasant feeling from activities such as sex and gambling – are genetic.
The UK government has begun clamping down on betting shops to halt the rise of gambling disorders.
Earlier this year, ministers slashed the maximum stake on fixed off betting terminals from £100 to £2.
It followed a 2018 law which imposed harsh penalties for firms that targeted adverting to children or glamourised gambling.
Are you a problem gambler? Take the NHS test
Score 0 for each time you answer ‘never’, score 1 for each time you answer ‘sometimes’, score 2 for each time you answer ‘most of the time’, score 3 for each time you answer ‘almost always’.
1. Do you bet more than you can afford to lose?
2. Do you need to gamble with larger amounts of money to get the same feeling?
3. Have you tried to win back money you have lost (chasing losses)?
4. Have you borrowed money or sold anything to get money to gamble?
5. Have you wondered whether you have a problem with gambling?
6. Has your gambling caused you any health problems, including feelings of stress or anxiety?
7. Have other people criticised your betting or told you that you had a gambling problem (regardless of whether or not you thought it was true)?
8. Has your gambling caused any financial problems for you or your household?
9. Have you ever felt guilty about the way you gamble or what happens when you gamble?