Discussions about the possibility of legalizing gambling in any country are always a matter of controversy.
Not from an economic standpoint, of course. The increase in revenue that casinos have brought to different regions is undeniable. But, to those who are against any type of gambling, its disruptive effects are also undeniable.
According to these people, we should prohibit gambling because it’s addictive.
This argument has become so commonplace that most people don’t even question it anymore. But to what extent is it true?
1 – Neuroscience 101
I’m not suggesting that some forms of gambling aren’t designed to be addictive.
For decades now, scientists have been showing that this is also a matter of neurochemistry.
As you may know, there’s something called the reward system in your brain.
It motivates you to seek food, sex, and other pleasurable things.
This system depends largely on the release of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. And it turns out that some people show a reduced response to dopamine.
Which makes it harder for them to resist their impulses and delay gratification.
I’m oversimplifying the whole thing, and I’m far from being an expert in neuroscience. But there’s at least one thing I can say for sure.
That thing is: our current knowledge of neurochemistry isn’t enough to understand the pitfalls of gambling.
And, in fact, a big part of the problem is in the very choice of words used to describe it.
2 – Our Inner and Outer Talks
It’s one thing to say that some forms of gambling are more conducive to addiction than others.
It’s another thing to say that gambling is addictive.
If this seems to you like a semantic issue of no great consequence, you’d better learn something about your subconscious mind.
Those who study NLP know this well.
This doesn’t mean that everything you assert will materialize itself.
Because, usually, you also send other messages to yourself that often contradict what you said before. And you may do this consciously or unconsciously.
That’s why, for a person to get rich, it’s not enough to use affirmations such as “I am rich”.
The problem isn’t with the affirmation per se. The thing is that a person must bring him/herself into alignment with what he/she says. And that’s difficult to do with statements that don’t find much evidence in one’s environment.
Unless you have a strong purpose behind what you say. But, when we talk about things there are often repeated by almost everyone, the opposite happens.
That is, it becomes difficult not to believe in that thing.
You’ve probably already heard that a lie that is repeated often is accepted as a truth.
That’s what we witness every time someone says that something is addictive and no one questions this.
Well, almost no one.
3 – Of Rats and Men
In the late 70s, psychologist Bruce Alexander (together with some colleagues) made an interesting experiment.
He wanted to see how rats would behave when presented with the opportunity of consuming as much morphine as they wanted.
Such an experiment, by itself, wouldn’t have been different from previous ones if it wasn’t for one thing.
This time, not all rats were isolated in cages.
Some were put in a colony of 16 to 20 rats, called “Rat Park”. And the difference between these two groups was tremendous.
The first group, as expected, became addicted to morphine.
Those in the colony, on the other hand, consumed it much more sporadically.
Not only that, but when those from the first group were moved to “Rat Park”, their behavior changed.
To the point that they weren’t dependent on morphine anymore.
Why? According to Alexander, because now they had more interesting things to do.
Such as hooking up and hanging out with new friends.
This theory has recently been endorsed by British journalist Johann Hari.
He’s traveled to different countries around the world to find out what has worked when dealing with heroin addiction. And policies that worked all had one thing in common.
They all tackled the social factors that could lead a person to become addicted.
Chief among them was a lack of meaningful connections.
That’s what led Hari to say: “The opposite of addiction is connection”.
Does it mean we should disregard all the neuroscience behind it?
On the contrary. It’s well known the role that other neurotransmitters play in our behavior.
One of them is oxytocin, which helps ups to foster deeper connections with each other.
So, there’s no doubt that neuroscience is being of great help to us in understanding this issue.
But, if we also don’t anthropologize and sociologize addiction, we’ll be making a huge mistake.
4 – Take Your Pick
Here’s another curious thing about the whole addiction argument.
Apparently, those who oppose gambling due to its addictive nature fail to notice all other things people become dependent on. And most of those aren’t illegal.
I’m gonna mention a couple of them in the next lines.
The first one is social media.
At this point, it’s become omnipresent in many people’s lives. And the damages that it causes to one’s mental health is becoming more and more a subject of study.
Especially when considering people under 30.
These are called the Generation Z (aka younger millennials).
As we know, each generation brings its own set of challenges to society as a whole.
Many people from the Generation Z have used smartphones since they were children. And they suffer from a higher incidence of anxiety, depression, and suicide.
All of those are issues that seem to be more prevalent among heavy social media users.
This makes me question how long it’ll be acceptable for 5-year-olds to have smartphones.
Now, here’s another common addiction in Western societies: flour.
William Davis, author of Wheat Belly, has heard many people tell him that “Bread is my crack”.
According to him, this is because of a protein called gliadin.
Whatever the case may be, most people who eat flour products regularly would be able to relate to that previous quote.
It’s no wonder that more and more experts have been warning us about the dangers of the standard American diet.
Still, I haven’t seen anyone trying to prohibit the selling of bread, pasta, etc.
And thank goodness for that. Because it’d only make things worse.
5 – Why Prohibiting Gambling Is a Bad Idea
Psychologist Robert Cialdini is the author of a classic book called Influence, first published in 1984.
The book is all about heuristics, that is, decisions we make based on a few key pieces of information. And Cialdini talks about how those mental shortcuts are used in efforts of persuasion.
According to him, we can categorize all heuristics under 6 basic principles.
One of those is the principle of scarcity.
As you can verify for yourself, anything that’s scarce is automatically perceived as more valuable and attractive by us.
Even if it wasn’t that valuable at first.
Oftentimes, when something’s at our disposal any time we wish, we won’t even pay much attention to it. But then, all it takes is the suggestion of it being taken away from us for a change of attitude to occur.
Suddenly, we can’t imagine ourselves living without that thing anymore. And it turns out that one of the most efficient ways to make something appear to be scarce is to prohibit it.
Knowing this allows us to better understand an ironic paradox.
Those who are the most ardent opponents of gambling often end up becoming its bigger proponents.
They fail to notice that the worst thing they do is to be so passionately against it.
The more they emphasize how dangerous, stupid and immoral gambling is, the more attractive it becomes to others. And those other people will often take trips to different countries just to enjoy such guilty pleasures. But what would happen if there were a casino just a few kilometers away from them?
It’s possible that they wouldn’t even bother going there more than once a month.
This reminds me of a famous quote from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet.
It’s when the title character says that the country of Denmark would be one of the worst prisons for him.
His friend Rosencrantz doesn’t agree with that, though.
To which Hamlet replies: “Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
It wouldn’t be a total absurd to adopt this rationale to gambling.
Because gambling in itself may not be addictive, but prohibiting it makes it so.
Okay, maybe that last sentence was me going too far into anthropologizing and sociologizing (and psychologizing) gambling addiction. And, in doing that, I’d be making the same mistake of those who are too much in love with neuroscience.
But, think about it. What does prohibition foster more than anything else?
And this is exactly what we don’t want to do when dealing with any type of addictive behavior.
Whatever our opinions about it may be.