Bracket busted? There's a reason sports betting gets us hooked and keeps us hoping

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. - Perhaps you’ve already lost your NCAA bracket challenge at work. Or, you’re still disappointed because you’re down $10 for picking the Broncos in the Super Bowl. And yet, you live in hope: Maybe you can win big on the Kentucky Derby in May.

If this scenario sounds familiar, you're not alone.

According to the American Gaming Association , 2012 saw about $380 billion in illegal sports betting. That same year, about one percent--or $3.5 billion--was wagered in Nevada, the only state where sports wagering is legal.

Odds are, we like to bet on sports

To delve into the brain chemistry behind betting behavior, we turned to Dr. Mark Bardgett, Northern Kentucky University Regents Professor of psychological science. He's also director of NKU's nterdisciplinary Minor in Neuroscience and specializes in brain science and related behavior.

1. What in terms of brain chemistry makes up want to bet on sports?

There are certain brain regions that become more active when we feel pleasure. When somebody wins a bet they get money. The brain regions become much more active when they receive the money or when they know they’ve won the money.

For instance, when you’re watching the TV on Saturday night, you may look for the winning lottery numbers. If your numbers show up and you win, there’s about two or three distinct brain regions that become active at that point. And presumably, either that activity signals we want something or we feel good about what’s occurred.It’s not just the brain regions in humans; the same patterns have been studied in rats and mice, as well as a number of other species.

2. Are endorphins responsible for creating the excitement?

As far as I know, there’s a bit of misconception there. I believe that endorphins are released, they block pain and they make people feel good, but for the most part endorphins don’t play as much of a role as folklore has it. There’s a neurotransmitter called dopamine and that seems to be the key neurotransmitter. It doesn’t get released in the sense that it goes into your bloodstream and increases your heart rate and so forth like adrenalin or how some people would characterize endorphins. But this is mainly in the brain and when those dopamine levels increase that’s usually a telltale sign that a person is feeling pretty good.

3. Is dopamine released before or during the event?

It seems to be during the event. Some people have shown it to be beforehand. Some people have said no, it’s during the event. So there’s a little bit of controversy about whether it’s the thing that induces the pleasure. So it’s usually released at the same time when something good happens, so if you just won, winning is now associated with feeling good.”

4. Why do people feel invested or emotionally connected to team sports?

I think what happens going back to the dopamine story, what people in a sense are trying to do is elevate their dopamine levels to make themselves feel good. And some people can do that through playing sports or maybe they haven’t played sports in many years so they want to watch their favorite team play. So by watching that team play and seeing them win, or even just seeing them out on the court or on the baseball field, that alone spikes their dopamine levels.

5. Can this lead to addictive behavior?

What it does is it reinforces that behavior, so you seek it out the next time. And that’s where the addiction part comes in. When people’s dopamine levels are low, they want to get them back up, so what they do in a ‘nice sense’ is they turn on the NCAA and they just watch it. In the more ‘addictive sense,’ they like to gamble on it and spend money they maybe shouldn’t be spending.

6. What sort of treatment is used when this behavior gets out of control?

In terms of gambling addiction, the primary treatment is to use some type of psychotherapy or talk therapy. Maybe to expose the person to a game or situation in which they’re likely to place a bet and try to diffuse it or make it so they don’t feel as good or they don’t get the rush. So basically what this person learns is, now when I bet or when I see my team, I don’t get as much of a rush out of it.

Betting: Problem or fun and games?

When gambling behavior gets out of control, program manager Michael Rosen at the Center for Chemical Addictions Treatment (CCAT) explained their organization is there to offer help.

1. What kinds of therapy do you use to treat gambling addiction?

Treatment approaches often use cognitive behavioral techniques, addressing the relationship between one’s thoughts and his/her behavior. One common and dangerous belief is that gambling is a solution to financial problems. The person believes “If I have enough money (credits) to keep gambling, eventually I’ll hit big.

Support groups such as Gamblers Anonymous and Gam-anon take a 12-Step approach to those affected by gambling disorder. Ohio also offers a Problem Gambling Hotline (800-589-9966) to help locate resources throughout

the state. Center for Chemical Addictions Treatment provides assessment, diagnosis, and treatment options for those concerned about their gambling patterns.

2. Are there warning signs?

Gambling, sometimes called the “Invisible Disease,” can be hard to detect because gamblers are very good at hiding their behavior.It is the only disorder in which lying is a diagnostic criterion. Further, it becomes difficult for individuals to admit to themselves that a problem exists.Gambling is supposed to be fun, about winning, about feeling good.

3. So when does it become a problem?

Some common signs include:

  • Lost time: Individuals with a gambling disorder often have no concept of how much time is spent gambling.
  • Minimizing Losses: Individuals with a gambling disorder often exaggerate how much they win and minimize how much they lose.
  • Hides signs of gambling: From lottery tickets and Bingo cards to bank statements and bills, individuals with a gambling disorder often conceal any tracks of their behavior.
  • Tries to escape feelings: Whether loneliness, depression, sorrow, or any other uncomfortable or difficult feeling, individuals with a gambling disorder may find “relief” or “distraction” from these feelings by gambling.
  • Increases the size of bets: Individuals with a gambling disorder often build a tolerance to the amount of their betting. It is common for bets to increase in wager and risk as a problem develops.
  • Tries to stop but can’t: Individuals with a gambling disorder usually have difficulty controlling their gambling behavior.They may recognize the need to stop, but just can’t.
  • Borrowing:Individuals with a gambling disorder often borrow money from others or household savings.
  • Mood Swings: Some individuals with a gambling disorder experience mood swings when they are not gambling. A sort of withdrawal from the behavior can cause irritability and restlessness.

For the birds?

It may be a good thing casinos don't extend credit to pigeons. Interspecies evidence points to gambling being innate. Even though pigeons weren’t necessarily wagering on sports, a 2013 University of Kentucky study showed even the birds exhibited a propensity for gambling.  

In the study. the pigeons could choose:

Feeder 1, which released two pieces of food after 10 button pushes OR
Feeder 2, which released three pieces of food after random button pushes

The pigeons preferred to take the chance on getting the larger amount of food even though they sometimes had to hit the button 20 times.

The study revealed in most cases the pigeons were willing to forgo the sure thing to instead try for the jackpot.

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