Pathological Gamblers And Cognitive Distortions

Today we are going to talk about the types of cognitive distortions that pathological gamblers most often end up in. We also propose some treatment options.
Pathological Gamblers and Cognitive Distortions

Cognitive distortions are cognitive treatments that are often biased. Moreover, when we talk about mental disorders such as those of pathological gamblers, they become more important. In many cases, these disturbances have either just arisen or are due to the contributing factors.

Gambling is one of the most primitive activities in the history of mankind. There are many famous names in the world who have been obsessed with gambling, and you can easily find them if you read through the history books. Emperor Claudius, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Giacomo Casanova are just a few examples.

However, it wasn’t until 1980 that gambling began to gain more relevance when it became clear that it can lead to serious problems. Then the DSM-III decided to include it as a diagnostic category.


When we talk about pathological gambling, we mean gambling. So video games wouldn’t fall into this category, although that doesn’t mean they can’t be addictive.

The pathological gambler we will refer to according to the diagnostic manuals can be identified by a loss of control over the game. Another point of recognition is entering into a dependent relationship. The gambler will continue to play even if he is aware of its negative consequences.

At present, pathological gambling is no longer classified as an impulse control disorder, but is now in the Addictive Disorders category of DSM-5. This is because it has many of the characteristics of an addiction.

A gambler’s futile attempts to resist the urge to play often lead to the complete decline of their personal, relationship and/or professional goals.

The cognitive biases of pathological gamblers

Gamblers in casino

Pathological gamblers have certain irrational beliefs or cognitive distortions in their minds that keep them addicted to the game.

Cognitive distortions are prejudices that we use when processing information. They are not necessarily pathological, as we all have them to a greater or lesser degree.

However, someone would have to adjust them if they become too common and start to get in the way of progress. The typical deformities of pathological gamblers include the following:

  • The illusion of control. This is the belief that the results of a game depend more on the activity itself than on chance. The person really thinks that he, and he alone, can control the game and the results. For example, a pathological gambler may think, “I have a surefire method of winning.” They really believe in this bias and that’s why they keep playing.
  • Fixation with absolute events. A gambler measures his success in the game by looking only at his earnings, while quickly forgetting his losses. It is common for a speculator to lose much more than he gains. However, that bias is an illusion, which keeps them stuck with their addiction.
  • Superstition or illusory correlation. These are chance associations between a particular event or behavior and a prize. Thus, the player begins to believe that a certain event increases their chance of winning. This is comparable to wearing a charm or performing a certain ritual. It is clearly a magical thought, as a pathological gambler cannot control his win or loss. An example of this cognitive distortion might be, “If I kiss my dice before I roll them, I win.”
  • Machine personification. Some gamblers attribute human feelings to the machines or inanimate objects they play with. Someone might think, “The machine is cheating on me. He wants to confuse me, but it won’t work, because I’m smarter.”

How can you help pathological gamblers?

A man behind a poker table

The first step to overcoming a cognitive distortion is for a pathological gambler to notice this distortion himself. Cognitive abnormalities are not easy to detect because they have become programmed over time.

One way to detect them is to ask a gambler to fill out some sort of self-registration document whenever he feels the urge to play. If you explain it well and the person does it the right way, he or she will become aware of their cognitive distortions.

You can show him the most typical prejudices of other gamblers and ask him which one he most identifies with. Doing so should help the person understand that such cognitive distortions are largely responsible for their motivation to continue gambling.

It is important to replace them with thoughts based on objectivity and reality if you want to break these habits. This can be done through Socratic interrogation and guided discovery.

Here, a person wonders what evidence he has to maintain a particular thought. For example: “How can I be so sure that my method is foolproof? Does winning or losing really depend on me? What is the evidence?”


After applying the Socratic questioning for himself and noticing the misconception, one will be more inclined to change his way of thinking. For this, someone has to review all the questions asked and come up with a rational answer. That will be their mental mantra from then on. Some examples are:

  • “I can’t control a machine that works randomly.”
  • “I sometimes win, but the data indicates I’ve lost a lot more often, so the gains don’t make up for the losses.”

Gradually, the gambler will become aware of the futility of his behavior. He will realize that his problem only creates new problems. Ultimately, the gambler should lose interest and stop gambling as a result.

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