FREDERICTON (CUP) — Alcohol, smoking and drugs are some of the biggest addictions in North America today. All of these, however, are not as significant as gambling–currently the leading addiction–[which] continues to grow. Gambling is defined as the wager of money on an uncertain event. Most of us have already, or will eventually, gamble at some point in our lives. Gambling can range from betting on sports and horse races, to instant win and lottery tickets, to video lottery terminals, or VLTs, and slot machines. In recent years, gambling has become even more accessible through Internet sites, which offer everything from VLTs to card games like poker.
“I first became interested in gambling about 10 years ago when I conducted a study with one of my honours students,” said Richard Nicki, a psychology professor at the University of New Brunswick.
Nicki has come to specialize in this area of psychology, even having some of his research published in the Journal of Gambling Studies in the winter of 2003. According to Nicki, the main reason people gamble is to try to strike it rich. “It is the only form of recreation in which participants have the chance to win big,” he said.
The ideas of what money can bring–security, freedom from anxiety and the “good life”–are irresistibly attractive. Another reason people gamble is for recreation. Many gamblers participate in these activities due to their fun and social aspects, as a form of entertainment. There is also the anticipation and reward complex involved, making the gambling experience exciting and stimulating. “Gambling for charity related reasons is also quite popular,” said Nicki. The charity aspect also lends gambling a guise of respectability in the eyes of society.
But by far the most dangerous reason for gambling is as a form of escape, to elude boredom, anxiety and emotional problems. According to Nicki, VLT gambling has actually been proven to reduce depression. However, it is far from a recommended treatment for emotional difficulties. Other research has found that there are other less important contributors to gambling, such as proximity to casinos, peer pressure and growing up with authoritarian parents.
VLTs are one of the most popular forms of gambling. These machines can be found in many bars, as well as in casinos. In Canada, gambling on these machines generated $10.7 billion in 2003 alone. Due to their overwhelming popularity, these machines are being built at alarming rates. VLTs have constituted the primary focus of the research of Nicki and his colleagues. In the basement of Keirstead Hall at the University of New Brunswick is a VLT lab, where student volunteers come and their behaviour–including their verbal behaviour, betting behaviour, and heart rate–is monitored at different points.
“VLTs have been scientifically proven to be the most addictive form of gambling,” said Nicki. “VLTs are problematic… what some refer to as the crack cocaine of gambling. “Repeat gamblers can often fall into the ‘gambler’s fallacy,'” he said. “After a certain number of losses, they will inevitably win; they believe that things will average out in the short term.”
This theory is quite deceptive: they may win, but not win big, or else the win may be prolonged over a lengthy span of years. Most times this theory is false, as only a very small portion of the population will actually win big at gambling ventures.
“Many gamblers have the illusion of control,” Nicki said, and think they can control the situation. For example, some believe their betting behaviour, the time or way in which they hit the stop button, or the way they roll the dice controls the outcome. Many people are superstitious, and believe they know which machines are the lucky ones. It is also widely believed that if a machine does not put out for a prolonged period, it is more likely to win. “Unfortunately,” as Nicki said, “these machines are reprogrammed quite frequently, therefore all of these methods and beliefs are completely unfounded.”
It is generally quite easy to detect a problem gambler from a number of key indicators. They generally begin to gamble for longer and longer periods, and are constantly thinking about or preparing for gambling activities. “They will often chase losses, trying to win back lost money, and gamble to escape the pressures of their everyday lives,” Nicki said. They may also have a growing debt, and become involved in illegal activities to finance their habits. Often, they may demonstrate withdrawal symptoms at home, work or school, and lie about where they were and what they were doing.
“A person’s gambling habits begin to have a negative impact upon other areas of their lives: relationships, health, employment, finances, and neglect of personal and family needs,” Nicki said.
Students, namely 18 to 24 year olds, are the demographic group most likely to engage in gambling. They are also the most likely to develop a gambling problem. A relatively small number, between four and six per cent, are classified as being pathological gamblers. In general, the majority of gamblers are single middle-class males, and most are young adults.
The effects of problem gambling are varied. “People will commit fraud, steal money, or use credits cards to gamble. I’ve even heard of people who committed suicide because they racked up so much debt,” said Nicki. “I’ve even heard stories of people who get so attached to a particular machine, they will wear a diaper so they don’t have to leave it,” he laughed.
“But that’s probably just hearsay.” Most of the students I talked to had previously engaged in some sort of gambling, and although none seemed to have particular problems related to gambling, many have heard stories. Krista Boland, a student at St. Thomas University in Fredericton and an admitted addict to sports gambling, let me in on her habits. “I’m a sports freak!” she said. “I mainly bet on hockey and baseball though. But if I don’t get my tickets on time, look out.” Allie Mercer, a Memorial University of Newfoundland student, commented: “I’ll play the odd game of poker, drinking games, and scratch tickets are super addictive. I usually just buy more tickets with the money I win from them, so I don’t think it’s harmful.”
Another St. Thomas student, Brandon Mapplebeck, said: “I don’t really see gambling as a problem at STU. Of course there’s tons of social gambling around, but I haven’t seen anything I would classify as problematic.” The good news is there are ways to gamble responsibly, without it quickly getting out of hand. In order to enjoy gambling in this way, it should be viewed as a form of entertainment. Gamble with others to enhance the social aspect. Gambling should also be well-balanced with other leisure activities. Finally, it is necessary to set a budget as well as a time limit on gambling, giving yourself a degree of control.
“In this sense it is just like any other addiction. In general terms, imposing the idea of everything in moderation should work in avoiding any sort of gambling addiction,” said Nicki.
Many of Nicki’s students have taken up his interests in gambling. Jason Doiron is currently completing his PhD thesis on the establishment of a problem gambling prevention centre in Prince Edward Island. This program aims to teach those at risk problem focus skills, as well as coping with the emotions and characteristics at the core of the problems.
Another thesis student, Steve Jefferson is seeking to interpret the way in which people deal with negative emotion, using 150 VLT players from Fredericton. He has found that a number of factors contribute to problem gambling, most importantly impulsive behaviour, irrational thinking and the ability to lose yourself in a mindless activity.
Organizations like the Responsible Gambling Council have been formed to promote prevention and awareness of gambling addictions. The Atlantic Lotto Corporation has also begun to deal with gambling in a responsible manner, hiring experts to research the effects of their services. Nicki had many suggestions in this area. “Professional help should be available,” he said. “What we need is a board that will research, distribute information, and promote responsible ways of gambling.”