Hooked on gambling: a problem of human or machine design? (2018)

Volume 5, No. 1, p20–21, January 2018

Murat Yücel, Adrian Carter, Kevin Harrigan, Ruth J van Holst, Charles Livingstone

Published: January 2018

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S2215-0366(17)30467-4

The harms of habitual and disordered gambling are many, and adversely affect individuals, families, employers, and communities. While the development of gambling disorder by players of electronic gambling machines (EGMs) involves complex interactions between multiple factors (eg, decision-making processes, availability of gambling outlets), there is growing recognition of the role of machine design in the progression of the disorder.1, 2 We allege that EGMs are intentionally designed with carefully constructed design elements (structural characteristics) that modify fundamental aspects of human decision-making and behaviours, such as classical and operant conditioning, cognitive biases, and dopamine signals. Structural characteristics include high event frequencies (enabling continuous play), random ratio reinforcement schedules, near misses, losses appearing as wins, multiline betting, and exaggerated audible and visual reinforcements.3 The relative influence of one design feature over another is unclear, but the combined effects probably impart a powerful drive towards gambling-related thoughts and behaviours. These design features might explain why, relative to other forms of gambling, EGM use is linked to an accelerated trajectory to harmful gambling, including disordered gambling, and more of those harms.4 Ready accessibility of EGMs and normalisation of gambling via advertising and availability have compounded these effects. We propose that these combined machine–human design interactions become a more persistent feature of the condition as the behaviour progresses from habit to disorder or addiction (figure).

Conceptual model of how the design features of electronic gambling machines (EGMs) interact with the design features of human neurobiology, cognition, and behaviour across the stages of gambling

The incentive salience model of addiction5 provides a strong neurobiological framework for how striatal dopamine activity, conditioning, and altered cognitions can combine to account for diminished control and increased drive to gamble when an individual with higher risk for a gambling disorder is confronted with EGMs. A more detailed understanding of the interactions between these machine design features and aspects of human decision-making and behaviours, including their interactions within vulnerable groups (adolescents, those with a mental illness, or under substantial psychosocial distress), will provide valuable insights for producing safer gambling products. The use of virtual reality and computational or decision neuroscience approaches can provide ecologically valid and real-time investigations of affective, cognitive, and physiological changes while gambling.

Urgent reform of EGM regulations to limit the impact of structural characteristics on gambling-related harm is needed. Opportunities abound for regulatory attention to reduce the prevalence and harm of gambling, including venue and machine accessibility, modification of EGM structural characteristics, enhanced user understanding and information, and use of systems to assist users to make and observe limits to gambling.2 The time has come to prevent further damage associated with gambling and protect our communities.

No funding was received in relation to the present article. MY reports grants from the National Health and Medical Research Council, Australian Research Council, The David Winston Turner Endowment Fund, from Monash University, and from law firms in relation to expert witness report or statement. AC reports grants from the National Health and Medical Research Council, during the conduct of the study. CL reports grants from the Victorian Responsible Gambling Foundation, Australian Research Council, City of Melbourne, Maribyrnong City Council, City of Whittlesea, Alliance for Gambling Reform, outside the submitted work. RJvH and KH declare no competing interests.


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