There has been much research into addiction generally. Gambling addiction is relatively under-researched. This is an important point because both the betting industry and the government demand ‘robust research’, or a similar phrase, upon which to decide whether there is a direct causative link between a particular form of gambling and addiction.

It is generally agreed that some people are more susceptible to becoming addicts. In some, there may be a small genetic propensity but overall it is life experiences which have the greatest influence. Adverse Childhood experiences – abuse, trauma, lack of ‘good enough’ parenting, lack of loe etc. – have a strong correlation with mental disorders including addiction – but, of course, the majority of people who have suffered in childhood do survive healthily. Forms of disadvantage such as poverty and poor education are also factors that are agreed to increase vulnerability – but again, it’s important to recognise that vulnerability is not a direct line to problems, but it increases probability.

Much addiction research has tended to focus upon the individual as ‘the problem’. Teachers used to talk about ‘problem children’, failing to realise that the ‘problem’ was far more complex and involved many factors including background, disadvantage, and schools and teachers themselves! In the case of machine addiction a newer way of thinking has evolved. As well as taking into account life experiences, it looks very closely at the machine itself, then at the relationship between the individual user and the machine. We’ve given a section to this way of thinking in Addiction by Design?

More traditionally, the following is an example of conclusions from research:

Dr Charles Livingstone, at Monash University’s school of public health and preventative medicine, is one of the world’s leading researchers and experts on poker machines. He says those startling figures are all by design, with gaming machines purpose-built to get people hooked through “reinforcement events” — a fancy name for the ringing bells, flashing lights and vividly coloured spinning reels that fill pubs, clubs and casinos around the country.

“The reinforcement events give a release of dopamine. It floods reward pathways in the brain. We see the same response in people with a cocaine dependency,” Livingstone told The Huffington Post Australia.

“The more reinforcement, the greater the sense of anticipation, the greater the dopamine.”

Livingstone says poker machines use two types of reinforcement to keep people playing, and keep them pouring money into the slots; classical conditioning, and operant conditioning. The classical type is the one more widely known as the Pavlov’s dog scenario, where humans and animals can be trained to associate a certain event (in Pavlov’s experiment, a ringing bell; with poker machines, a flashing light or happy music) with a reward (the dog gets a treat; the human gets a poker machine payout). Operant conditioning is a bit more tricky, teaching a human or animal to complete a task (pull a level or push a button) which will give only occasional and random rewards.

“If you want to habituate the animal or person, it’s better to give them unpredictable and intermittent rewards,” Livingstone said.

There lies the crux of the appeal of poker machines; you press a button or pull a lever, and most times you won’t win, but the appeal and lure that the very next spin could maybe perhaps win a big jackpot keeps you playing.

“It makes it more addictive. It’s all about increasing the reinforcement without forking out more money,” Livingstone said.

(Huffington Post 30 September 2016)

These ideas are pretty standard in psychology which shows how conditioning is at the base of learning, and how brain reward sytems involving the chemical dopamine play a part in forming our beahviour.

There are some specialist research units investigating addiction as reported here:

…there is a robust amount of research into why slot machines are so addictive, despite paying out only about 75% of what people put in. They are, some scientists have concluded, the most addictive of all the ways humans have designed to gamble, because pathological gambling appears faster in slots players and more money is spent on the machines than other forms of gambling. In Spain, where gambling is legal and slot machines can be found in most bars, more than 20.3 billion dollars was spent on slots in 2008 – 44% of the total money spent by Spaniards on gambling last year.

That data was published earlier this month by a psychologist from the Universidad de Valencia named Mariano Choliz in the Journal of Gambling Studies. Yes, such a publication exists! In the background of the paper, Choliz outlines the tricks that slot machines use to keep people feeding them:

Operating on a random payout schedule, but appearing to be a variable payout; i.e. fooling the player into thinking that the more money they play, the more likely they are to win.

  • “The illusion of control” in pressing buttons or pulling a lever to produce the outcome.
  • The “near-miss” factor (more on this below)
  • Increased arousal (where the sounds and flashing lights come in)
  • Able to be played with very little money; the allure of “penny” slots.
  • And perhaps most importantly, immediate gratification.

Another research example points to something we take up elsewhere. This is the idea that when playing the machine, the user becomes immersed as if in a trance-like state:

The study, published online this month in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, is one of the first to rigorously test the “slot machine zone” hypothesis— the idea that slot machines are preferred by problem gamblers because the fast, continuous style of play brings about an immersed state in which players can escape from feelings of stress, boredom or low mood.

“Slot machines are one of the most popular forms of gambling worldwide, but they are also the form most consistently linked to gambling addiction,” said Spencer Murch, the study’s lead author and a UBC psychology graduate student. “By understanding why slot machines are the preferred game for problem gamblers through this research, we have the potential to improve gambling policy and to design slot machines that promote more responsible play.”

For the study, researchers recruited two groups of participants: a group of UBC undergraduate students, many of whom were playing a slot machine for the first time, and another group of experienced slot machine gamblers.

For 30 minutes, participants played a real slot machine in the UBC casino lab. The machine had panels mounted on each side displaying moving shapes, such as white circles. Participants were told to press a button whenever they noticed a white circle turn into a red square. After playing, they were asked to report if they felt like they were in a trance or lost track of time while playing. The researchers also measured heart rate changes during play.

In both groups, researchers found that participants who were at higher risk of problem gambling reported greater levels of immersion during slot machine play. Among the experienced slot machine gamblers, those at higher risk of problem gambling were more likely to miss the changing shapes on the side panels of the slot machine.

Luke Clark, the study’s senior author and director of the Centre for Gambling Research at UBC, said the results support the idea that immersion in the game leads to reduced attention to the visual world beyond the slot machine.

“This confirms there is indeed a link between gambling addiction and the so-called slot machine zone,” said Clark. “When the experienced slot machine gamblers played, we found they not only felt that they lost track of time and their surroundings, but they often failed to notice the shapes on the periphery of the machine.”

Finally, staying with neuroscience, here is a video taken from a BBC Panorama programme about FOBTs. The excerpt shows Professor David Nutt, a leading expert on addiction, showing how the brain of an addict changes in response to an experimental set up simulating a FOBT. It’s intereting to note that Professor Nutt has very strong views. Expert as he is, do you think he is justified in being so certain about his attitudes to the betting industry?

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