A psychologist explains why some people get hooked on sports betting apps

Joe works as a security guard on the nights when he is not in college. He loved watching basketball and played it all through high school. He has wagered $100 on one of his favorite teams to win because they are playing tonight.

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He listens to the game while he sits in his car, one eye on the parking lot and the other on his physics textbook. His phone is still buzzing. He receives a notice from a sports betting app asking if he wants to make a prop bet—a kind of side wager unconnected to the game’s specific results—for a particular player to get five rebounds tonight. He puts $20 more on this wager. His app buzzes once more, this time recommending a prop bet that a specific player would make four three-pointers in this game. He adds $40 here since the odds seem decent and he knows this guy.

He keeps getting pings from his app regarding new bets as the game goes on. Joe’s team has won when the game is over. He’s excited about the thrill of chasing in-game wagers and feels confident about his basketball knowledge and ability to select a winning side. However, he has lost the most of his prop bets and hasn’t completed nearly enough of his physics homework, so he is actually down $50 for the evening. He attempts to ignore any thoughts about how much money he truly lost as he settles down for a long night. And when his teams play again, I have no doubt that Joe will be back in the betting booth.

This scenario demonstrates the type of game play that many sports wagerers report, despite the fact that Joe isn’t a real person and that the features of a sports gambling app might differ from vendor to vendor and even from state to state. According to one prediction, there would be about 19 million American sports bettors online in 2022. As additional states progressively allow these applications, the number of Joes will undoubtedly increase.

As a certified clinical psychologist, I have studied and addressed the negative effects of gambling for more than ten years. How and why bettors like Joe are able to ignore the fact that they really ended up losing money and concentrate on how well they selected a winning team is something that intrigues me. It is in our nature to enjoy victory, pleasure, and rewards. These particular chances are sent straight to your smartphone via sports betting applications so you can enjoy them right now.

Gambling feels nice when it’s hot outside.

There are a number of neuroscience and psychology ideas that explain why certain individuals may be more predisposed to like gambling than others.

According to a well-known learning theory, humans are motivated by two primary brain systems. One makes individuals look for fresh, interesting, and unique circumstances. An additional system pushes kids to be cautious, aware of danger, and self-protective.

These devices function much like a car’s gas and stop pedals, but picture driving with both feet, like my great uncle did. All people have both pedals; it only depends on the individual how sensitive they are to the brake or how much they want more gas.

Consider how some people completely dread flying, while others deliberately jump out of the plane as skydivers, and yet others board because they are excited about their upcoming trip. Opportunities for sports betting can resemble that aircraft. While some people are eager to download an app, others may be cautious due to their unique combination of caution and novelty seeking.

Neuroscientists are aware that this delicate balance between reward and danger involves specific genes, brain areas, and neurotransmitters, such as dopamine. Those who are more motivated to partake in riskier activities may have slightly altered reward-related brain regions.

Researchers have shown that the brains of study participants who are heavy gamblers may respond similarly to cues for natural rewards such as food or sex when they see images of gamblers in casinos. These results are consistent with previous research on how people’s brains respond to stimuli related to alcohol, cocaine, and cigarettes.


In addition to gambling’s inherent rewards, sports betting apps could have certain unique structural features that draw users in and increase risk for some individuals.

For instance, Joe is a huge basketball fan and has faith in his ability to predict his team’s play. He can become more eager to watch a game he already appreciates if he places a wager on it. His favorite teams’ games will automatically signal him to make another wager. It makes sense to devote more of your time to the things you enjoy and are skilled at. Additionally, there was a change in brain activity, especially in reward-related regions, when study participants were informed that they would either watch or wager on a sporting event.

Additionally, people are more inclined to engage in activities that are easily available and have minimal entrance barriers. Taking sweets out of your cupboard is a common tip you may hear if you want to cut back on the amount of sugar in your diet. It turns out that eating a cupcake at the counter is more likely to happen than having to make the entire trip to the shop for one.

Similarly, being close to casinos is a recognized risk factor for excessive gambling. Applications for sports betting effectively turn your phone into a portable casino. The novelty and excitement combined with the accessibility of access probably make possible injury more likely.

Additionally, a lot of “gamification” goes into betting applications so they feel less like stuffy banking apps and more like participatory video games. Free play, leaderboards, push alerts, and other features can boost enjoyment and engagement. However, these capabilities may also cause users to feel less connected to the money they are really spending and make it more difficult for them to stop using the app if they start to worry about how much money or time they are wasting.


Most gamblers and sports bettors don’t suffer any negative consequences. They may lose a few cash, just like Joe. Overall though, they can discover that the excitement of a closer bond with their team and the possibility of winning is within their means. Because there is an extra element to the pleasure while seeing a movie in a theater, betting on sports might be likened to buying movie tickets.

I advise customers to set spending or loss restrictions when I deal with them. A lot of applications provide options for safe gambling, such as deposit, loss, and wagering restrictions. Those who truly worry about their gambling may choose to use blocking software. Additional tools and solutions may be found on the responsibleplay.org website of the National Council on Problem Gambling.

In addition, I tell my customers that sports betting businesses operate a profit-driven business model, regardless of the user’s ability to select a winning team. The applications are adept at capturing the essence of what makes betting thrilling and profitable. Gamers can try to spend at a level that will make it enjoyable and low-risk. Being the greatest user of an app is not necessary.

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