Loaded dice in gambling addiction research

‘Who says Americans don’t do irony?’ I joked the other week, noting the National Center for Responsible Gaming conference on gambling addiction was being held in Las Vegas. According to an article in Salon, the joke has fallen a little flat, as the NCRG is funded by the gambling industry and may have a vested interest in directing research towards certain theories of addiction.

“The NCRG is committed to the idea that most ‘normal’ people aren’t at risk of developing a gambling problem,” says Schull. “They’re trying to show that all addicts share a common pathway, which involved the reward system of the brain. This really helps the industry because the idea is, if these people were not to gamble, they would find something else to be addicted to. They come into the world with the brain disposition of an addict, so you can’t blame casinos.”

Schull says the industry has successfully defined the terms of gambling addiction; it’s telling that we speak about problem gamblers, she says, but not problem machines, problem environments, or problem business practices. Currently, Schull is working in the young field of “neuroeconomics.” She says that brain scans and genetics studies are producing fascinating data, but can’t fully explain the complicated problem of gambling addiction. “Doing this research, I’ve become a behaviorist in a weird way,” she says. “I’ve come around to thinking that if you put any rat in a cage, under the right circumstances, you can addict it. Some of us have greater liability than others, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not on a continuum.”

The piece is interesting because it shows the significant ambiguity and disagreement at the heart of gambling addiction, the ‘crown jewels’ of the behavioural addiction field.

This is important because there is an increasing drive to reframe existing disorders and medicalise problems of excess as addictions.

Rather disappointingly, it seems heavily driven by the media who are happy to publicise utter drivel as news when it is nothing more than empty PR.

Here’s a BBC story supposedly on ‘exercise addiction’ which actually is just the private Huntercombe Hospital saying they can treat it. Here’s another story on ‘mobile phone addiction’ based on the fact that a private clinic in Spain announced it was treating two boys. And here’s another on ‘internet dating addiction’ based on nothing except a press release to promote an Australian University.

Not a single one of these is based on research. It’s just people announcing a new form of addiction. That’s all you have to do and you can get international press.

For extra bonus points you can mention dopamine, and it sounds like science.

We know dopamine is involved in drug addiction, but we also know that anything we enjoy, ‘addictive’ or not, also engages the dopamine system. So saying that the activity is addictive because it engages the dopamine system is an empty statement.

What we’ve learnt from the drug industry is that research can be used as a way of advertising theories. Essentially, it’s PR for an industry favourable world view.

And what years of persuasion research has told us is that people who don’t have the time or ability to evaluate the details are often persuaded by a plausible sounding (in this case ‘sciencey’) explanations, however empty.

The Salon piece notes that in its rhetoric the industry tends to cherry pick studies. Rhetoric is currently important to the gambling industry because it is being sued by people who have lost thousands through gambling.

Because the legal system determines responsibility, it’s in the industry’s interest to promote theories which say that problem lies largely in the neurobiology of the individual, rather than in their business practices.

Link to Salon article ‘Gambling with science’

One thought on “Loaded dice in gambling addiction research”

  1. OK, I will play devil’s advocate: I completely agree with their theory – that anyone who has a personality flaw in the vein of addiction will find SOME outlet for it, whether it be gambling or heroin or porn addiction. I don’t see how its possible to blame casinos for gambling addiction. And why is it a “blame” paradigm anyway? Everything we engage in serves us immensely by providing contrasting experiences, and personal growth is ALWAYS the result – even if the addicts have wailing and gnashing of teeth along the way. I recommend not pushing against unwanted things and focus on what is WANTED.

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