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Impulsivity and Gambling in Emerging Adulthood

Impulsivity and Gambling in Emerging Adulthood

Gambling is fast becoming a public health problem in the United States, especially among emerging adults aged eighteen to twenty-five. Since 1995, rates have doubled with around 7 to 11 percent of the emerging adult population having problems with gambling (Shaffer, Hall, & Vander Bilt, 1999). With the aforementioned facts it is necessary before continuing to define what is meant by emerging adulthood. It is argued that this period is neither adolescence nor young adulthood, but is theoretically and empirically distinct from them both (Arnett, 2000). Emerging adulthood is distinguished by relative independence from social and normative expectations, having left the dependency of childhood and adolescence and having not yet entered the enduring responsibilities that are normative in adulthood. 


Emerging adults often explore a variety of possible life directions in love, work, and world view (Arnett, 2000). Emerging adulthood can also be a time of trying to figure things out and attempting to understand “where I fit in.” In an effort to address multiple questions and uncertainties for eighteen to twenty-five-year-olds during this period, it is not difficult to theorize how boredom and impatience can oftentimes lead to risk factors for impulsivity. 


Researchers have started examining risk factors for gambling involvement in response to an increased prevalence of problem gambling among emerging adults (O’Connor, Allen, Bell, & Hauser, 2009). In examining impulsivity in emerging adults and their relationship to problem gambling, it is important to consider basic brain development. Brain development is from the inside out and from the bottom up. Metaphorically, the limbic system part of the brain is where emotional regulation takes place and parallels gas in a car, which causes the car to run. The last part of the brain to develop is the prefrontal lobe—where discernment, planning, and prioritizing take place—which is akin to the brakes on a car. Gambling in emerging adulthood is connection to different aspects of impulsivity, which can serve as separate risk factors for addictive behaviors (Clarke, 2004). This developmental period has been referred to as “betwixt and between” of wanting it all right now or trying to figure out what to do next. Additionally, this period features aspects of impulsive coping, sensation seeking, and risk taking associated with gambling and engagement problems (Cyders & Smith, 2008). 


With the emergence of Internet use, video games, interactive television, mobile phone use, social networking, and digital radio, it is now more convenient for emerging adults to become impulsive copers when upset or bored with their perception of how slow life is and the inability to be willing to, as was said in the 1960s, “pay their dues” relative to achieving or obtaining what they want in life. Emerging adults who are impulsive copers are more likely to engage in addictive behaviors such as substance use when faced with emotional distress (Cyders & Smith, 2008). Along with impulsivity are the constructs of sensation seeking and risk taking. Sensation can be observed or motivated by new experience to enhance physical sensations or arousal—think skydiving and bungee jumping. While risk taking carries a negative connotation, it can take on a positive one as well. For example, day trading is a form of risk-taking, though it is an everyday event that involved repetitive activities. 


Another area that contributes to impulsivity and risk-taking behavior in emerging adults—and which relates to addictive disorders such as gambling and food addiction—is social anxiety. Social anxiety is the desire to be accepted, to fit in, and to belong, which can lead to gambling leisurely, which can eventually lead to compulsive gambling. 


The challenge for emerging adults who are actively involved in gambling is a lesson learned from Adolescent Psychology 101: whatever behavior is being asked of an emerging adult to cease, diminish or relinquish must be replaced with another. The purpose of this article is to remind those interested in this population that in any discussion of problem behaviors, whether gambling, mental illness or family challenges, emerging adults need to be included in the solutions as well as the discussion.


Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55(5), 469–80. 
Clarke, D. (2004). Impulsiveness, locus of control, motivation, and problem gambling. Journal of Gambling Studies, 20(4), 319–45. 
Cyders, M. A., & Smith, G. T. (2008). Clarifying the role of personality dispositions in risk for increased gambling behavior. Personality and Individual Differences, 45(6), 503–8. 
O’Connor, T. G., Allen, J. P., Bell, K. L., & Hauser, S. T. (2009). Adolescent-parent relationships and leaving home in young adulthood. New Directions in Child Development, 71, 39–52. 
Shaffer, H. J., Hall, M. N., & Vander Bilt, J. (1999). Estimating the prevalence of disordered gambling behavior in the United States and Canada: A research synthesis. American Journal of Public Health, 89(9), 1369–76.