Natasha Schull’s Refreshing Skepticism on Gambling Addiction Intervention

Thursday, September 6th, 2012

-Eapen Thampy

You should read this MIT News article about addiction researcher Natasha Schull’s groundbreaking research on gambling addiction. Excerpt:

Now, in her new book, Addiction by Design, published this month by Princeton University Press, Schull delves into the lives of such gamblers. In particular, she looks at compulsive machine gamblers — not the folks playing social games around a table, such as poker, but those who play alone at electronic slot-machine terminals. For a small percentage of the population, these games become an all-consuming pursuit, a way of shutting out the world and its problems for long, long stretches of time.

But eventually, most compulsive machine gamblers recognize the hold that high-tech gaming has come to have over them. As one gambling addict told Schull: “I could say that for me the machine is a lover, a friend, a date, but really it’s none of those things; it’s a vacuum cleaner that sucks the life out of me, and sucks me out of life.”

Schull thinks this point — that for machine gamblers, it’s not about the money, but the escape into the “zone,” as Mollie and other gamblers call it — has eluded politicians who wrangle over casino openings and expansions throughout the United States, where more than 30 states currently have some form of legalized machine gambling.

“It’s a real stumbling block for policymakers to understand that,” Schull says. She adds: “Everyone believes the harm is how much money is spent, and that what’s driving the compulsive gamblers is a desire to make money. But … the ‘zone’ is really what’s driving this experience. The idea of winning money falls away when you get to the point of addiction.”

And:

Scholars who have read the book praise its exploration of the psyche of gamblers. Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist at Stanford University, lauds the way it “captures the intense relationship between humans and machines that is so much part of what people call the addiction experience.” Luhrmann adds that until reading Addiction by Design, she “hadn’t realized gambling was so much about the experience” of playing, rather than winning.

Schull’s research had attracted considerable attention well in advance of the book’s publication: She has appeared on “60 Minutes” and testified about the subject in front of the Massachusetts state legislature.

Yet Schull holds off on offering specific regulatory remedies concerning the way games should be structured. In some countries, legislators have suggested slowing down the pace of electronic slot machines to stretch out payoffs and water down the intensity of the experience — a technological fix Schull calls “wrongheaded” because it may simply encourage gamblers to play for longer periods using an equal amount of money.

Machine gambling, Schull emphasizes, “is not like buying a movie ticket or making a purchase at a store and then going home. This is rapid, fast, continuous spending where people lose track of time and space, and their ability to make decisions shifts over the course of the encounter.”

Instead, Schull asks, “Given the nature of this product and this interface, shouldn’t policymakers, state legislatures, be learning a little bit more about how this product affects people?” She adds: “I think my work is part of an emerging conversation.”

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12 Responses to “Natasha Schull’s Refreshing Skepticism on Gambling Addiction Intervention”

  1. #1 |  MH | 

    It seems like you could test the hypothesis by asking gamblers to play machines that work identically, but don’t actually pay out any money. And I’d bet the hypothesis would be disproven. It would be natural for gamblers to exaggerate the degree to which they are motivated by the “experience”, which isn’t as repulsive as admitting greed drives them.

  2. #2 |  En Passant | 

    Machine gambling, Schull emphasizes, “is not like buying a movie ticket or making a purchase at a store and then going home. This is rapid, fast, continuous spending where people lose track of time and space, and their ability to make decisions shifts over the course of the encounter.”

    I think there is some truth in that.

    I’m old enough to recall ubiquitous pinball machines in places where people congregate with time on their hands and some change in their pockets.

    They were relatively inexpensive to play, that only “paid off” in free games. People could “zone out” all afternoon on them. The really good players could zone out all day for the price of one game. The rest, not so much. But that’s the principle she’s talking about.

  3. #3 |  C. S. P. Schofield | 

    If people who are addicted to gambling machines are addicted to the ‘zone’, are they similar to heavy console gamers? If so, could they be weaned onto console games, which at least don’t hover their wallets for every round of play?

    Just a thought.

  4. #4 |  MH | 

    That almost seems too easy. Surely someone would have noticed by now if gamblers could appease their appetites with pinball. I’m guessing something’s going on with their neural risk-reward system, which then combines with the experience of playing the slots.

  5. #5 |  MingoV | 

    “This is rapid, fast, continuous spending where people lose track of time and space…”

    Hah! That’s what they said about quarter-a-play arcade games back in the 1970s! Must… shoot… more… space invaders.

  6. #6 |  el coronado | 

    Naw, this ain’t like Space Invaders. Video Poker, one rapidly learns when living in Vegas, is a beast. Have heard stats that something like 60%+ of all the compulsive gamblers here are VP junkies. #4 is exactly right: something IS going on with the neural risk-reward system – it’s adrenaline. Win or lose, that’s real $$ you’re playing with. The brain knows – even if the addict ‘forgets’ – that ‘money is paper blood’. Couple that with rapidly changing, brightly colored images on a video screen, along with long happy songs when you win big, and you couldn’t invent a more addictive system (that doesn’t dispense meth and/or crack) if you tried.

  7. #7 |  H man | 

    Sounds like it could be more addictive if you combined an actual video game with a system that paid out for skill rather than just luck plus some skill. It would be much harder to get the payouts right for the house.

  8. #8 |  Jess | 

    CSPS, it actually seems more likely that we’ll see video games move to incorporate more spending-and-gambling elements. DLC used to be considered lame, and now it’s one of the main points on which players judge a game or platform. A system in which one purchases digital counters, chits, or similar signifiers, completes some tasks of skill and chance with respect to those items, and then may cash out the some of the original items along with some additional items one has accumulated during those tasks, is a gambling system. It’s also a concise description of the modern MMORPG.

  9. #9 |  Meiczyslaw | 

    CSPS, it actually seems more likely that we’ll see video games move to incorporate more spending-and-gambling elements.

    Check out some of the current crop of iOS game apps. One of the big things right now is the in-app purchase, where you trade real money for fake money so that you can ramp up (for example) your characters’ equipment.

    Couple that with a sudden step up in the power curve — where you have to buy really expensive equipment to get over that hump — and you’ve got a cash cow.

  10. #10 |  Fluffy | 

    I’m sorry, but I don’t believe it.

    Every degenerate gambler I have ever known has been lying to someone – or everyone – in their lives about the extent of their losses. The real hook, the real reason they keep playing, isn’t even that they’re “addicted to the adrenaline of playing” or what have you, but because they are unwilling to abandon the fantasy that they will win big, recover all their losses, and avoid the looming Judgment Day where their spouse (or whoever) will find out they’ve lost all their savings, or their boss will find out about their embezzlement.

    Every fresh bet is an act of blessed procrastination. The avoidance of judgment and responsibility is the most addicting “drug” of all.

    They’re not all that different from, say, the various governments of Greece. It’s all about delaying the inevitable, and avoiding the consequences of what you’ve done – and the original loss that had to be kept secret is usually relatively small to the losses that pile up in the end. “Please, God, please, let this horse win so I can keep all my balls in the air for just ONE MORE DAY. Please!”

  11. #11 |  Fluffy | 

    If it was really about the pretty colors on the video poker board, the same personality types wouldn’t blow huge sums in the stock market, riding bad bets to the bottom. Which they used to do with no video element at all, but with just a telephone and a copy of the Wall Street Journal.

    1. Small bet. For fun.

    2. Oh shit, I lost!

    3. Damn, I don’t want to tell my wife. Wait, I’ve got an idea! Bet more! I’ll win back what I lost.

    4. Oh shit, I lost again!

    5. Repeat #3 for as long as you can, until you hit Skid Row.

  12. #12 |  bearing | 

    @11 “If it was really about the pretty colors on the video poker board, the same personality types wouldn’t blow huge sums in the stock market, riding bad bets to the bottom.”

    Do you have any evidence that these are, in fact, the same “personality types?”

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