Even a relatively subtle emotional cue can spark the urge to gamble among regular gamblers, according to a study from the University of Guelph and Dalhousie University.

By looking at a range of stimuli involving positive emotions from excitement to relaxation, the researchers found that the smallest cues, even those lasting less than a fraction of a second, could increase people’s desire to gamble.

The results suggest treating people with gambling problems is difficult because of the many emotional cues linked to gambling that they encounter each day, said Prof. Sunghwan Yi, Marketing and Consumer Studies.

“One of the reasons gamblers find stopping or controlling their activities so difficult is that the urge is activated by an automatic process,” he said.

“We found cues that denote excitement are extremely effective in activating the concept of gambling, hence, the urge to gamble, especially among regular gamblers whose main motive of gambling is to enhance positive feelings. They essentially pop up in their minds within a fraction of a second and are really difficult to be suppressed. Cues that suggest relaxation or relief had less definitive effects in our study.”

Excitement cues can include TV programs, websites and even roadside billboards showing such images as dice, a roulette wheel or cards presented along with the sense of excitement.

“They may have woken up that day with no intention to gamble, but all it takes for high enhancement gamblers — those heavily motivated by excitement — is the exposure to such cues for less than a second of stimuli.”

In an earlier study, Yi and his research team used cues, this time positive and negative, before providing a series of words or images to test how the desire to gamble could be automatically activated.

This new study focused entirely on positive gambling cues. Working with recreational and frequent gamblers in Guelph and Halifax, researchers provided a rapid succession of words and images intended to evoke excitement or relaxation. They found the strongest emotional response among those people driven by excitement.

“These cues draw them in, and suddenly the urge to gamble pops up even before they realize,” Yi said.

He said this study offers key lessons.

“When treating compulsive gamblers driven by excitement, we need to replace gambling with other non-risky activities.

“This could include physical activities outdoors like hiking or rock-climbing or competing in sports. We aren’t trying to change people’s need for excitement. Problem gamblers need to recognize that they may have to take steps to refrain from being in places in which these cues are often present. Once you are even briefly exposed to such cues, the urge to gamble is likely beyond your control.”

The study, “The Activation of Reward Versus Relief Gambling Outcome Expectancies in Regular Gamblers: Relations to Gambling Motives,” is available online and will be published in the Journal of Gambling Studies.