Personality and Gambling
Gambling is an activity in which something of value is risked on the outcome of an event when the probability of winning or losing is less than certain.
Gambling disorder is a psychiatric disorder characterized by persistent and recurrent problematic gambling behavior leading to clinically significant impairment or distress as indicated by exhibiting a constellation of symptoms, such as (a) being preoccupied with reliving past gambling experiences, handicapping or planning the next venture, or thinking of ways to get money with which to gamble, (b) needing to gamble with increasing amounts of money in order to achieve the desired excitement, and (c) after losing money gambling, often returning another day to get even (“chasing” one’s losses) (American Psychiatric Association 2013).
Big 5 personality traits are a taxonomy of dimensions of personality in which individual differences are summarized by the five broad factors of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism (reversed emotional stability), and openness to experience. There are a number of inventories that have been developed to measure the Big 5 personality traits.
Big 3 personality traits is a taxonomy of personality dimensions in which individual differences are summarized by three broad factors. There are several three factor taxonomies, such as that of Eysenck (extraversion, neuroticism, and psychoticism) or Tellegen (positive emotionality, negative emotionality, and constraint).
Gambling in some form occurs in nearly every culture. Although external factors, such as laws regulating gambling and the accessibility of games of chance, have a major influence on the extent of gambling involvement, there are also important differences between individuals in their propensity to participate in gambling.
When discussing gambling behavior, it is important to distinguish between participating in gambling activities versus the development of a gambling disorder. Gambling is a recreational and social activity that is considered a form of entertainment. Most adults in the United States have gambled at some point in their lives, with the most popular forms being purchasing a lottery ticket, playing slot machines, and betting on the outcome of sporting events or horse races. Gambling disorder is much less common, affecting a small fraction (~1%) of those who gamble, and is characterized by a loss of control over the amount of money or time spent on gambling and the associated adverse personal, family, and social consequences that stem from this. Characterizing the patterns and types of gambling activities that are more likely to lead to gambling disorder has been an active area of research. Although gambling and gambling disorder are often used interchangeably in the research literature, there is no reason to expect that the personality underpinnings will be identical for the two.
Personality and Gambling Disorder
There are many more studies of personality and gambling disorder than there are studies of personality and gambling per se. A review and synthesis of the literature on personality and gambling disorder uncovered 44 studies published through 2010 (MacLaren et al. 2011). The largest proportion of studies (22) was based on samples of individuals with a diagnosis of gambling disorder recruited from treatment facilities; other studies were based on student (7), convenience (5), and community samples (10). Although the most obvious place to look for a person with a mental disorder is at a facility that provides treatment, this can lead to biased samples for gambling disorder because only a small fraction of those affected (10–15%) seek treatment. The best source of information about the association between personality traits and gambling disorder is derived from a large community sample that is representative of the general population.
The largest community-based study of personality and gambling disorder to date was based on a representative sample of 10,081 individuals drawn from the Norwegian Population Registry (Brunborg et al. 2016). Three of the Big 5 domains were significantly associated with gambling disorder: neuroticism, (low) conscientiousness, and (low) agreeableness. What is especially surprising about the findings of this community-based study is that the strongest personality correlate of gambling disorder was neuroticism. This stands in sharp contrast to the predominant focus on the personality trait of impulsivity in the gambling literature.
Community-based studies that have used Big 3 personality inventories tell a similar story. A longitudinal study of a complete birth cohort in Dunedin, New Zealand, measured Big 3 personality traits at age 18 using the Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire (MPQ) and measured later gambling disorder at age 21 (Slutske et al. 2005). Of the Big 3 personality dimensions assessed by the MPQ, negative emotionality (roughly similar to neuroticism) and (low) constraint (roughly similar to conscientiousness) were significantly associated with gambling disorder. MPQ negative emotionality is composed of aggression, alienation, and stress reaction, all of which were significantly associated with gambling disorder. Note that the first two MPQ negative emotionality lower-order subscales of aggression and alienation are most strongly associated with the Big 5 trait of agreeableness, with only stress reaction associated with Big 5 neuroticism (Miller et al. 2013). MPQ constraint is composed of self-control, harm avoidance, and traditionalism, all of which were also significantly associated with gambling disorder. Another large cross-sectional community-based study of the MPQ Big 3 personality traits and gambling disorder was consistent with the New Zealand study in observing significant associations with negative emotionality and significant (but modest) associations of constraint and its lower-order subscales of self-control and harm avoidance with gambling disorder (Slutske et al. 2013).
In summary, community-based studies have been consistent in demonstrating that individuals with a gambling disorder tend to be higher in the personality trait of neuroticism, that is, they tend to be more likely to experience negative emotional states, such as anxiety, anger, guilt, and depression, compared to individuals without a gambling disorder. There have been less consistent results for a link between gambling disorder and the personality trait of low conscientiousness/constraint (viz., Miller et al. 2013); the three largest studies (Brunborg et al. 2016; Slutske et al. 2005, 2012), however, did find significant associations. This suggests that those with a gambling disorder tend to have difficulty controlling their impulses, pursuing goals, planning ahead, and delaying gratification. The findings of the three largest studies also found evidence that those with a gambling disorder, compared to individuals without a gambling disorder, tend to be disagreeable, distrustful, and uncooperative (this is inferred based on Big 5 agreeableness scale scores and MPQ Big 3 negative emotionality lower-order subscale scores of alienation and aggression).
Personality and Gambling
The diversity of gambling activities has posed a challenge when trying to understand the relation between personality and gambling. Experts have raised concerns about the common practice of lumping together involvement in different activities in studies of the correlates of gambling, because studying all gamblers without considering activity types may obscure associations between gambling and personality. Several alternative approaches have been used, such as examining the correlates of specific gambling activities in isolation or examining the correlates of the number of different gambling activities in which an individual has participated (reviewed in Savage et al. 2014). Some researchers have turned to statistical techniques to uncover meaningful groupings of gambling activities.
The most comprehensive example is a study of the relation between personality and gambling that employed a multivariate approach to characterizing the co-involvement in multiple gambling activities and included a broad inventory of potentially relevant personality dimensions, including the MPQ and measures of sensation seeking and magical thinking (Savage et al. 2014). Participants were empirically grouped based on whether they had participated in ten different gambling activities. Three groups were characterized by (1) extensive involvement in many gambling activities, (2) involvement primarily in nonstrategic gambling activities (e.g., slot machines), and (3) involvement primarily in strategic gambling activities (e.g., betting on horse/dog races or sporting events). The personality profile of low conscientiousness/constraint (i.e., impulsivity, sensation seeking) in the context of high negative emotionality (i.e., antagonism, aggressivity) and magical thinking (superstitiousness and espousing illogical beliefs) typified extensive, versatile gamblers. Average conscientiousness/constraint in the context of high negative emotionality and magical thinking typified those who primarily gambled on nonstrategic games of chance. Low conscientiousness/constraint in the context of high positive emotionality (i.e., interpersonal effectiveness, ambitiousness) and low magical ideation typified those who primarily gambled on strategic games of skill.
Two important points are highlighted by the study of Savage and colleagues. First, it suggests that the personality characteristics associated with gambling are not well captured by focusing on individual scales but rather by considering the joint influence of multiple personality traits. Second, it supports the premise that there are distinct subgroups of individuals with gambling disorder that have unique personality and motivational profiles. This may explain the discrepant findings obtained in studies of the personality correlates of gambling disorder reviewed above. An association between gambling disorder and traits related to conscientious/constraint may be dependent upon the relative proportions of individuals similar to those in the extensive gambling versus the nonstrategic gambling group in the study sample.
Which Came First?
A longitudinal study is necessary for resolving the temporal ordering of personality and gambling and gambling disorder. With one exception (Slutske et al. 2005), all of the studies reviewed above have been cross-sectional. However, even in a study that prospectively predicts gambling disorder at age 21 from personality measured at age 18, one cannot rule out the possibility that some individuals had gambling problems prior to age 18. Some aspects of personality, particularly those related to negative emotionality, may have been a consequence of these earlier gambling problems, rather than a potential cause of later problems. Longitudinal investigations that begin prior to the initiation of any gambling involvement are required to cleanly identify personality precursors. This is difficult because there is evidence that some children begin to gamble as young as 8 years of age.
This concern was addressed by revisiting the Dunedin study dataset and using behavioral observations of temperament taken at age 3 to predict gambling disorder at ages 21 and 32 (Slutske et al. 2012). A group of children who were characterized at age 3 as being “undercontrolled” (that is, they were rated as being restless, having a short attention span, being willful, impulsive, emotionally labile, impersistent, negativistic, and quickly withdrawing from tasks) were more than three times as likely to exhibit gambling disorder at age 32 than were children who were rated as well-adjusted. This cleanly establishes that the personality traits of behavioral and emotional undercontrol are evident many years before gambling problems emerge.
In this brief review, I have summarized what we currently know about the personality correlates of gambling and gambling disorder. There is consistent evidence that individuals with a gambling disorder are (using the Big 5 terms) higher in neuroticism and lower in conscientiousness and agreeableness than those without a gambling disorder. The correlates of gambling involvement appear to be similar, except that some aspects of extraversion (interpersonal effectiveness and ambitiousness) may also be relevant for certain types of individuals. An additional personality dimension that is not typically included in studies of gambling, magical thinking, appears to be a relevant trait that is not captured by the Big 3 or Big 5 taxonomies. There is emerging evidence that the aforementioned personality traits may not equally apply to all groups of individuals who gamble or who have a gambling disorder, that is, there may be subgroups with distinct personality profiles. Finally, the results of a longitudinal study suggest that some of these personality characteristics are evident as early as preschool age.