Why is gambling so addictive?

There are an estimated 350,000-450,000 ‘problem’ gamblers in the UK.  Why?

The anticipation of any reward triggers a dopamine ‘shot’ to the brain, inspiring action.  “The same basic physiological process – this particular chemical surging to this particular part of the brain – is what happens in addiction (1).”

If a reward is predictable, its effects diminish over time; if a reward is intermittent, they do not.  In consequence, occasional, unpredictable or random rewards are more motivating than predictable ones.  Gambling offers intermittent rewards: wins interspersed unpredictably with losses.

This is why slot machines are so addictive, and why we click compulsively on email and Twitter – not because we know we’ll be rewarded with interesting messages, but because we might be (2).”

Our craving for intermittent rewards has powerful consequences.  Such rewards tend to “amplify a belief in what [people] hope will happen over what they observe has happened (3).” 

Whereas experts used to think of addiction as dependency on a chemical, they now define it as repeatedly pursuing a rewarding experience despite serious repercussions. That experience could be the high of cocaine or heroin or the thrill of doubling one’s money at the casino (4).”


Why is teaching like gambling?

I hope every teacher has had:

  • A student turn themselves around – becoming more diligent, mature, successful.
  • A lesson which just clicks – a challenging class rise to it and leave the room enthused.
  • A risk pay off – an ambitious lesson work brilliantly.

Such experiences are powerful and memorable; they reaffirm our faith in our work and ourselves.

An example: in my second year teaching, I had a Year 8 class I found tricky.  Inspired by I’m not sure what, one lesson I sat all of them around a big table, put the lesson question on the board, provided a number of carefully chosen sources, and didn’t speak for the next forty minutes.  The result was incredible: students discussed and ‘solved’ the question using the sources (more quickly than I’d ever managed explicitly teaching them).  They decided they should write the answer in their book, and even nudged a student I could hardly get to put pen to paper to do the same.

It felt fantastic.  I raved about it, sent emails of praise to their head of year and form tutor, wrote up all they’d achieved.  And then…  I don’t remember the next lesson, but nothing ever matched up.  I tried the same approach with them another time, and the results didn’t come close.

Marked success, entirely unpredictable, inspired me to keep trying, tending to ‘amplify my belief in what I hoped would happen over what I observed had happened (3).’

It is such unpredictable rewards which, I believe, make teaching addictive.  They inspire teachers to push themselves harder and harder: having seen success, they keep working to repeat it; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t: so they redouble their efforts.

So what?

On one level, this sounds great.  Teachers are inspired by flashes of brilliance to keep pursuing the best from their students – who could object?  I’m not arguing that teachers shouldn’t keep pushing themselves – such a decision should be a trigger to leave the classroom.  Moreover, when teachers ‘gamble’ and ‘win,’ children’s lives are improved.  And a degree of emotional exhaustion is perhaps inevitable, given that teachers must expect the best of their students every lesson and are frequently disappointed by definition: it’s impossible to do one’s best all the time.

But I think it’s worth raising the comparison with addiction, and using this idea to consider the effect teaching can have on teachers, and the dimensions it can reach.  For me, making a connection between addiction and teaching made sense of the almost desperate tone in which friends have told me “I have to mark these books tonight,” in which the ‘have’ is emphasised as though nothing else were conceivable.  And it helped to explain why some teachers work themselves into the ground, neglecting themselves and their loved ones, like a school leader who once told me he’d sacrificed his marriage to turn around a school, because “she didn’t understand.”

There’s something paradoxical about teaching which requires us to reconcile the incompatible: setting the highest standards; accepting that human beings inevitably fall short on occasion; maintaining those standards unchanged while recognising human frailty (particularly our own).

Perhaps this is no different from any career or role: you win some, you lose some, you keep going.  I’m in no position to judge.  I think we should be aware though, that just as gambling can warp individuals’ priorities, so, perhaps, might teaching.  That helping colleagues may involve treating something akin to an addiction, and that helping ourselves may involve accepting that the results we achieve are not always within our control.



(1) Daniel Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

(2) Oliver Burkeman, ‘This column will change your life: Get into the habit of random rewards’

(3) Out of the Fog, ‘Intermittent Reinforcement’

(4) Scientific American, ‘How the Brain Gets Addicted to Gambling’