The Government’s recent imposition of £2 stake limits on gambling machines reminded me of the strange experience of working with the sector — and what happens when we actually try to do something about problem gambling.
Having worked in the Behavioural Insights Team (aka “nudge unit”) and gained some understanding of how nudging works — the use of behavioural science to inform consumer choices — I was offered the chance to put this to new use.
Before the media storm over problem gambling broke in 2017, various academics had realised problem gamblers were the ideal target for these interventions. Their rationale was as follows.
People gamble because it excites them — as psychologist Daniel Kahneman puts it, they are using ‘fast’ thinking. Some people become addicted to this fast thinking, and they might benefit from some kind of nudge towards ‘slow’ thinking and the greater awareness of action it creates.
Problem gambling is complicated of course. Like many addictions, it is often the tip of a psychological iceberg, with problem gamblers often addicted to other things, seeking escape from family problems for example.
Nonetheless, by 2016 the researchers had gathered enough data to suggest that certain patterns of gambling were strong indicators of addiction: chasing losses, not stopping whilst ahead, lengthy gambling sessions, gambling in the morning, and so-called ‘chaotic play’ — where players spend wildly fluctuating amounts of money.
They also had a forum where this research could be put into action: the trade association representing Britain’s bookmakers. This meant that problem gamblers using machines in betting shops could be targeted in real time, with algorithms detecting their gambling habits, then targeting them with messages giving advice or urging them to slow their play, sometimes even suggesting help.
I joined this group to coordinate what became known as the Responsible Gambling programme — I was a small part of a project run by dedicated data scientists and others. But it was the first of its kind and was beginning to bear fruit. After trials in two major cities, early results were promising, including cutting the length of time players were spending on each session and the number of people betting in the early morning.
A project as complex as this takes time, and whilst I am no longer part of it, the programme started to do real good. I have no interest, financial or otherwise, in any gambling company, but I think it’s worth adding that we did convince them to do things that (slightly) reduced their own income.
But as it started working, a strange negative feedback loop began to occur. The more the virtual Left found out about it, the more they attacked the project. One well known political magazine even suggested my work was responsible for delaying the Government’s betting industry review. Another stated I must be bad simply because I was ‘working for the gambling industry’.
Now the people who attacked this work may believe they are doing the right thing, even if they have never tried to do anything about addiction themselves. But with many, a hatred for the ‘exploiters’ in this case masks a wider agenda, whereby almost all commerce is in fact believed exploitative because one person makes money out of another’s whims.
Ultimately, people are going to keep making dangerous choices, and if we don’t accept that then we should ask ourselves how much we accept freedom of choice and of association. The model Britain has pursued until now — a very free gambling market with a flourishing civil society providing care to those who lose control — has given us one of the lowest rates of problem gambling in the world.
The fact that freedom of choice and association has succeeded here is not coincidental. ‘When the scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with publicans and sinners, they said unto his disciples, How is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners?’ So this asks a question about whether civil society is really allowed to succeed before the state steps in.
When individuals use their free association to try to help some of the most vulnerable people in society and, I would argue, succeed in doing some good, they risk making the state look inept because they may just succeed in a domain which the Left believes should be reserved for the state. Apparently, that just isn’t on.
Dr Radomir Tylecote is the Senior Research Analyst for the IEA’s Trade and International Competition Unit.