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Memory Processes in Gambling: Analysis of Working Memory Model

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Compulsive gambling is a problematic behaviour that has a widespread impact all over the world. For example, there are many cities such as Las Vegas and Macau that are designated for entertainment purposes such as gambling, and many casinos have been established in those regions to cater to patrons. From the engaging lights and sounds of slot machines to strategic moves in playing card games, gambling stimulates an extensive range of cognitive functions in the brain. In the long run, gambling has been a way to cope with stress, as observed in individuals with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. (source)

Compulsive gambling, however, loses the purpose of entertainment when it creates drastic changes to one’s daily functioning. Compulsive gamblers have an uncontrollable urge to gamble without considering the consequences that they may face. In addition, they believe that the duration of their gameplay and their bet values have a large contribution to their chances of winning. These are some of the myths that compulsive gamblers have in mind despite the low probability of winning. They would still constantly take risky chances to get their desired result. (source) – gambler’s fallacy

There is a substantial amount of research with regards to the behavioural features of compulsive gamblers, but little is known for its association with working memory and long term memory. Compulsive gambling is an addiction that may lead to negative outcomes causing harm to the individual and the people surrounding them. That being said, studies of the cognitive functions of memory have been able to reveal some connections between compulsive behaviour and processing stimuli in the working memory and long term memory stores.

Working memory is used in situations where it’s necessary to strategize and make quick decisions. For example, gambling is an activity that requires a lot of decision-making and creating personal strategies in order to win games. The concept of working memory is defined as the temporary storage of information and is responsible for holding visual and auditory stimuli. Baddley and Hitch (1974) created the working memory model which composes of three main components namely the visuospatial sketchpad, the phonological loop, and the central executive, which all come together to build the process of working memory. Each part of the working memory model has a corresponding function to hold different types of information.

Initially, the visuospatial sketchpad deals with visual and spatial information. In relation to the visuospatial sketchpad, slot machines consist of games that are designed with visually appealing graphics that would attract an individual to play these games over long periods of time. In the past few years, slot machines have become modernized with graphics that are familiar to the general public (e.g., movie-themed slot machines) which are meant to grab attention as people develop preferences for anything that are more familiar to them. Furthermore, the visuospatial sketchpad also identifies spatial information such as where certain symbols are placed indicating a winning arrangement. Through playing slot machines, a large number of stimuli are processed within the visuospatial sketchpad.

With compulsive gamblers, the raging flow of visual and spatial stimuli that they can get through playing games such as slot machines can act as a form of escape and may temporarily aid to alleviate stress. However, the time that an individual can play on slot machines is dependent on the amount of money that is available to use. Gambling becomes a problem when an individual gets immersed in the visuospatial stimuli that the activity provides.

To follow, the phonological loop is responsible for the temporary storage of auditory and verbal information. For example, slot machines are not just composed of attention-grabbing graphics, but also with convincing sound effects. As a matter of fact, slot machines have various sound effects with a purpose to make it seem that there are no losses occurring. This would motivate the player to continue playing without considering the amount of money that they have been losing.

Not only with slot machines does the phonological loop work in the activity of gambling, but it can also be observed with playing table games such as roulette and poker. To elaborate, the spinning of the roulette wheel and the ball that moves with it makes sounds that are processed as auditory stimuli. In addition, poker players have their phonological loop active through processing verbal stimuli during gameplay sessions as they need to pay attention to the announcements of the dealers.

The phonological loop consists of two main parts, namely the phonological store and articulatory control process. For example, the phonological store acts in gambling situations such as when poker players hear a response from the dealer. After hearing the response, the verbal information will be processed in the articulatory control process when players eventually comprehend the response as indicating a winning or losing set of cards.

In the casino setting, varying auditory and verbal stimuli from different types of gambling games are continuously processed in the phonological loop. Without sounds, slot machines and table games would not be enjoyable and lack the purpose of overall amusement to the players. In addition to the games, casinos play background music that creates a welcoming environment for the customers.

Gambling activities consist of a combination of visual, spatial, auditory, and verbal stimuli that are purposely created for the sake of entertainment. When done responsibly, gambling can serve as a pleasurable activity. Nonetheless, when compulsive gambling takes place, an individual gives utmost priority to the gambling aspect and ignores alternative options of entertainment.

Lastly, the central executive controls the system of working memory and deals with attending information in the visuospatial sketchpad and the phonological loop. The central executive is also responsible for problem-solving and calculations. In gambling, an extensive amount of problem-solving and calculations are necessary to conduct the gameplays. Even though the majority of gambling activities rely on chances, some card games require strategic actions that could increase their likeliness of winning among other players.

The central executive handles attention-driven information with two different systems: the conflict-resolution system and the supervisory attentional system. For instance in gambling, the conflict-resolution system can be observed in events where a player is knowledgeable with the rules of a certain game. The conflict-resolution system does not require a lot of attention, and it is based on prior knowledge of an individual. Thus, when a problem occurs within the course of the game, it is responded to automatically as similar situations were previously experienced by the player.

On the other hand, the supervisory attentional system plays more of a major role in the central executive functions as it can work in newly encountered situations. When a player encounters decision-making tasks in gambling (e.g., events of a huge win or loss), the supervisory attentional system creates complex decisions such as stopping and continuing the gameplay. That being said, the supervisory attentional system is an important component in the executive functions, particularly in situations where it’s necessary to make rational decisions.

Research suggests that compulsive gamblers have an impaired executive function (source). For example, compulsive gamblers lose track of the calculations of their winnings and losses. As they engage more in gambling activities, their ability to make rational decisions is also diminished. Compulsive gamblers may effectively process stimuli coming from the visuospatial sketchpad and the phonological loop. In contrast, they may not be able to make sound judgments on critical moments as they get too occupied with the activity.

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Ultimately, the initial working memory model paves the way for the concept of an existing connection between the working memory and long term memory. Baddley (2000) added another component to the working memory model known as the Episodic Buffer. There are instances in which stored information in the long term memory is utilized in the process of working memory. Parts of the long term memory such as visual semantics, language and episodic long term memory operate and contribute to processing stimuli in the working memory. (source)

For example, a regular slot machine player would depend on their previous knowledge about slot machines such as a row of matching characters demonstrate a win. This indicates that they hold semantic knowledge on the characters which interferes with their visual processing. Another example is when playing card games, a player would actively respond upon hearing phrases such as “place your bets” and “bets are closed” in a language that is learned implicitly.

As mentioned, the central executive relies on previously encountered situations to make rational decisions. Consequently, in the middle of gambling activity, a player would also create solid strategies that are derived from their errors in past events.

Overall, the mechanisms of the working memory has a significant contribution to regulating activities such as gambling. Underlying features of gambling activities can be a source of abundant visual and auditory stimuli, and this factor can encourage an individual to a nonstop engagement towards gambling. The central executive controls incoming visual and auditory stimuli in the working memory and is an important system for crucial processes such as decision-making. However, with a reduced functioning of the central executive system, gamblers would eventually lead to problematic behaviours.

The Episodic Buffer that was proposed in the recent working memory model explains the relationship between the working memory and the long term memory. Although there is a connection between the two memory systems, it is not guaranteed that every processed stimulus in the working memory would be passed to the long term memory, and vice versa. For example, compulsive gamblers would not be able to access all their prior knowledge regarding the games unless there’s a presence of cues needed for retrieval of information.

There are many factors to consider on how compulsive gamblers were led to their current state. These factors can be derived from implicitly learned materials stored in the long term memory. There is evidence of links between implicit memory and involvement in gambling (source). Implicit memory is the cognitive system that holds unconsciously learned information. For example, after a series of gameplays, regular roulette players would already know how payouts work when the ball on the roulette wheel lands on a particular number. They may not know precisely how the learning occurred, but it can be observed on the skills that they exhibit.

There are many learning processes which can build implicit memory. One of them is associative learning which consists of classical conditioning and operant conditioning. First, classical conditioning involves two unrelated stimuli that are linked to create a response. For example, upon hearing the ringing sound of slot machines for the first time, the point of it would not be instantly recognized. After repeated exposure to the sound of slot machines, a player would be able to identify the sound as an indication of a win and they will react positively to the sound.

In classical conditioning, there is a phenomenon called discrimination. Discrimination occurs when a learned response does not occur upon presentation of a degree of stimuli inconsistent with the original paired degree of stimuli. For example, slot machine players would need to hear a certain sound for them to give a more positive reaction. That being said, they would not exhibit a greater positive reaction to the sound of a small win as compared to the sound of a big win. Compulsive gamblers who constantly play slot machines may show implicit reactions towards different sounds such as extreme negative reactions (e.g., damaging the buttons of the slot machine) in the course of a loss on their gameplays.

There is another phenomenon in classical conditioning known as generalization. Generalization occurs when an individual gives the same response for anything related to a certain category. For example, table game players would think that all table games are interesting and they would give a positive reaction towards other similar games. On the other hand, they would not show the same reaction towards slot machines as they are not accustomed to playing them regardless of their variety.

As a side note, compulsive gamblers may generalize that other activities are not as interesting as gambling. Thus, they would only attend to the activity of gambling in order for them to satisfy their needs.

Another type of associative learning is operant conditioning. Operant conditioning deals with rewards and punishments. Through operant conditioning, behaviours that are built through reinforcing rewards would reflect to the individual’s environment. (source) Gambling activities such as slot machines are tailored to issue rewards based on a variable-ratio schedule. Due to its unpredictability, gambling has the aspects of giving a sense of anticipation. Thus, for compulsive gamblers to get their desired rewards, they would keep on gambling without considering how their behaviours would reflect on the environment for the sake of searching personal contentment.

Under other conditions, gambling activities can be a source of punishment. Punishments act as restrictions for the occurrence of a behaviour. There are two techniques of punishment in operant conditioning: positive punishment and negative punishment. Positive punishments are carried out through the presentation of an aversive stimulus to restrict behaviour. At a certain point, compulsive gamblers would have to make major decisions in which they would need to step out of their limits, involving putting their personal properties on stake. During the coping stage, compulsive gamblers would realize that their addiction leads them to an unpleasant condition, which in the end would stop the problematic gambling behaviour.

On the other hand, negative punishment is another technique of punishment in operant conditioning which decreases the occurrence of behaviour through omitting anything favourable. For example, there may be times when a gambler gets a streak of winnings and constantly receives rewards such as large amounts of money. However, as time goes by, the giving out of rewards is not permanent and would not occur for long periods of time.

Another feature of operant conditioning that drives motivation is its hedonic and motivational value. This concept describes the levels of desirability of towards a reinforcer with two main points, which determines whether they “like” (hedonic) or “want” (motivational) a particular reinforcer. (Source) This can be conditioned over time through repetitive stimulation and reinforcement such as a gambling activities particularly in strategy based card games giving an environment to make players feel that they are starting at ground zero with everyone else who is playing whom also have the same desire to take a chance to climb the ladder of risk with one another. This gives the player a measurable variable of how much they like the reinforcement of competing with others due to the stimulus of socializing through friendly banter and the ability to layout strategic exchanges with other players.

However, there is also a want that can be conditioned and measured within a player by reinforcing the near-miss effect when a player constantly feels as if they are nearing the desired result despite the amount of losses. That being said, a player is willing to work hard for that reward and the like becomes a want. This is a behaviour that can be observed through compulsive gamblers who are willing to go through the hurdles

As mentioned earlier, gambling follows a variable-ratio schedule, and rewards are only given out randomly. Research suggests that the psychological concept of reward uncertainty tied with gambling triggers dopamin

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Memory Processes in Gambling: Analysis of Working Memory Model. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 30, 2023, from
“Memory Processes in Gambling: Analysis of Working Memory Model.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022,
Memory Processes in Gambling: Analysis of Working Memory Model. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 30 Jan. 2023].
Memory Processes in Gambling: Analysis of Working Memory Model [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 27 [cited 2023 Jan 30]. Available from:
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