Contrary to many anecdotal reports, mild gambling problems are usually not the beginning of a downward spiral toward serious pathology, according to a study published in this month's Journal of Abnormal Psychology (Vol. 112, No. 2). Instead, says lead author Wendy S. Slutske, PhD, natural recovery appears to be the norm.
"The study's most significant finding is the demonstration that mild gambling-related problems are often quite transitory," says Slutske, a psychologist at the University of Missouri-Columbia. "They don't inevitably portend worse problems in the future."
The study, which tracked more than 450 people for 11 years, defined problem gamblers as those who met one or more criteria of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders for pathological gambling, but not enough for a full diagnosis.
Slutske and her colleagues found that the percentage of people who said they had had gambling problems in the past year hovered around 2 to 3 percent, while the percentage of people who said they had ever had gambling problems rose from 3.2 to 5.3 percent over the 11-year study period.
One possible interpretation is that many people had chronic gambling problems that lasted throughout the study period, with only few recovering naturally. But Slutske and her collaborators found that different people were reporting gambling problems at each of the study's time points. Most of those who reported problems in the fourth year, for instance, no longer reported them in the seventh.
One of the study's limitations is that it included only adults between 18 and 29 years old, so it's unclear whether the findings would also apply to older gamblers. "There hasn't been a study such as ours--that is, in which participants were followed over time at specific ages--of older problem gamblers," says Slutske.
Another limitation is that it focused on people with relatively minor gambling problems--only four of the participants were classified as pathological gamblers.
"It may be that rates of natural recovery are higher in people with less significant problems," notes University of Calgary psychologist David Hodgins, PhD, who has studied differences between gamblers who recover naturally and those who recover with treatment. "That's certainly been shown to be true with other sorts of addictions, such as alcohol problems."
Nonetheless, Hodgins says, "It's a great study. There's just very little information available on the natural history of gambling problems, and the issue that they're focusing on is a very important one."