Impulsive action but not impulsive choice determines problem gambling severity

PLoS One. 2012;7(11):e50647. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0050647. Epub 2012 Nov 27.


Background: Impulsivity is a hallmark of problem gambling. However, impulsivity is not a unitary construct and this study investigated the relationship between problem gambling severity and two facets of impulsivity: impulsive action (impaired ability to withhold a motor response) and impulsive choice (abnormal aversion for the delay of reward).

Methods: The recruitment includes 65 problem gamblers and 35 normal control participants. On the basis of DSM-IV-TR criteria, two groups of gamblers were distinguished: problem gamblers (n = 38) and pathological gamblers (n = 27) with similar durations of gambling practice. Impulsive action was assessed using a response inhibition task (the stop-signal task). Impulsive choice was estimated with the delay-discounting task. Possible confounds (e.g., IQ, mood, ADHD symptoms) were recorded.

Results: Both problem and pathological gamblers discounted reward at a higher rate than their controls, but only pathological gamblers showed abnormally low performance on the most demanding condition of the stop-signal task. None of the potential confounds covaried with these results.

Conclusions: These results suggest that, whereas abnormal impulsive choice characterizes all problem gamblers, pathological gamblers' impairments in impulsive action may represent an important developmental pathway of pathological gambling.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Choice Behavior / physiology
  • Female
  • Gambling / physiopathology*
  • Gambling / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior / physiopathology*
  • Impulsive Behavior / psychology*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Surveys and Questionnaires

Grant support

This study does not report on treatment for gambling nor does it advocate for the use of specific medication in the treatment of gambling addiction. Disclosures of interest include that DB is Research Fellow of F.R.S-FNRS. AC is a Research Director of the F.R.S-FNRS. XN is a Research Associate of the F.R.S-FNRS. FV is supported by a research grant of the ESRC (ES/J00815X/1). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.