An online survey of college student gamblers reported that individuals who gambled and were prone to lying, cheating, and cruel behavior (primary psychopathy) were significantly more likely to develop gambling-related problems and significantly less likely to use strategies to limit the range of problems they fall into (protective behavioral gambling strategies). The study was published in Psychological Reports.
Psychopathy is a pattern of emotional, personality, and behavioral characteristics that includes callousness, superficial charm, manipulation, impulsive actions, and antisocial behavior. One component of it is primary psychopathy, which is believed to have a significant genetic component and which makes a person prone to lying, cheating, aggression, cruel behavior, a general lack of empathy, and heightened grandiosity.
The other component is secondary psychopathy, which is thought to be more of a learned pattern and is characterized by an excess of negative emotions, high anxiety, thrill seeking, and impulsivity.
Studies have linked both types of psychopathy to various adverse outcomes. Failure or unwillingness to use protective behavioral strategies—strategies that people use to limit the harm they may experience from various activities (such as not drinking and driving under the influence of alcohol or leaving the scene before they run out of money when playing, etc.) — is often cited as an important mechanism leading to adverse outcome for individuals high in primary psychopathy.
The tendency to act rashly on one’s impulses, often in a way one later regrets, is an often-cited way in which secondary psychopathy gets a person into trouble. This behavioral tendency is sometimes treated as a separate personality trait called “urgency.” And how do these translate into gambling behavior?
To study the relationship between psychopathy and gambling, Matthew P. Kramer and colleagues conducted an online survey of college students who reported gambling. The authors initially collected observations from 1,620 students, but 1,312 students were excluded because they did not report gambling. The responses of 308 students who reported gambling were analyzed. These were predominantly male (63.64%), the average age was approximately 21 years, and they responded to the survey in 2017.
Participants completed assessments of gambling quantity (Gambling Quantity and Perceived Norms Scale, GQPN), primary and secondary psychopathic traits (Levenson Self-Reported Psychopathy Scale, LSRP), Gambling Protective Behavioral Strategies UPPS Scale -P) and problem gambling severity (Problem Gambling Severity Index, PGSI). This latter assessment included questions about problems caused by gambling, such as financial problems for the household or mental health problems such as stress and anxiety. In their analyses, the researchers considered the likelihood of having gambling problems and the magnitude of such problems separately.
The results indicated that primary psychopathy is associated with problem gambling both directly and through its association with lower levels of protective gambling strategy use, which in turn exacerbates problem gambling. In other words, people who are prone to lying, cheating, and dishonest behavior, while having low empathy, tend to fall into gambling-related problems, but are also less prone to use strategies intended to protect from such problems, exacerbating said problems.
Magnitude of gambling problems was also associated with primary psychopathy, but this association was fully explained by a reduction in protective strategies associated with primary psychopathy. Secondary psychopathy was also associated with problem gambling, and this association was mediated through urgency. A tendency to rash, impulsive decisions, decisions that the person had not thought through, strongly predicted gambling problems. The association between magnitude of gambling problems and secondary psychopathy was direct and quite strong.
The study sheds light on important links between gambling behavior and psychopathic traits. It should be noted, however, that this study design does not allow for cause-and-effect inferences between the perceived behavioral and personal tendencies. The study was done on university students and the results in different groups may not be the same.
The paper, “Psychopathy and the Emergence of Problem Gambling: The Role of Protective Strategies and Gambling Urgency,” was authored by Matthew P. Kramer, Roselyn Peterson, Angelina V. Leary, Dexter D. Wilborn, Tatiana Magri, and Robert D. Dvorak.